To the Cuesta College men’s basketball team, Phillip Jimenez deserved to prove his detractors wrong.
The sophomore from Shafter might have done just that Friday in the Cougars’ biggest game of the year thus far.
The only one of Cuesta’s starters not selected to the Western State Conference North Division all-conference team, Jimenez played a key role in the No. 7 Cougars’ 90-73 first-round CCCAA Southern California Regional playoff win over visiting No. 10 Mt. San Jacinto College (21-9).
Being the underdog is nothing new for Jimenez, a 6-foot forward from an often-overlooked agricultural city of 13,000 in rural Kern County, but that didn’t take the sting away.
When Cuesta head coach Rusty Blair told him that the team’s four other starters and its sixth man were all recognized, “I was kind of disappointed,” Jimenez said, “but I’m always going to fight back, and I’m always going to come back to work harder to do the best that I can.”
Jimenez hit a game-high three 3-pointers, scored 17 points and tied a game high with two steals, and two teammates had double- doubles to help the Cougars (26-5) erase the memory of a bitter first-round playoff loss at home last season.
In a game where Cuesta received streaky first-half shooting from Roger Guardia and Henok Yigzaw, Jimenez was the lone consistent inside-outside scoring threat.
“You watch the game, you’ll see that he’s our hustler,” sophomore center Xavier Mylleville said. “He made big shots, and on defense, too, he’s our bulldog out there. Without him, we’re 45 percent less aggressive.
“Tonight, he proved that everybody who didn’t give him a vote was wrong.”
Mylleville also came up big. The 6-7 Belgian scored 20 points and grabbed a game-high 22 rebounds. None of his teammates had more than six rebounds.
Despite getting into foul trouble toward the end of the game’s decisive run, point guard Christian Koutras had 10 points and 10 assists.
It was Mylleville clearing the boards that helped turn a four-point Cuesta lead into a blowout victory where Blair felt comfortable enough to clear the bench with almost three minutes left.
After a back-and-forth first-half, the Cougars built a seven-point lead to start the second, but a Mt. San Jacinto 3-pointer by Eric Lawton, one of the team’s only two of the night, cut it to 49-45 with 15:24 left.
The Cougars finally put on a consistent offensive display during a 14-5 Cuesta scoring run over the next five minutes.
“We were scoring in the first half, but it wasn’t the flow of the offense that we wanted to have,” said sophomore forward Seth Koenig, who scored a game-high 22 points.
“The second half, we just started running the offense like coach was telling us, and it opened the floor for us.”
The Cougars finished the game on a 41-18 run.
Guardia, who started the game 0 for 3 from 3-point range, hit his next two 3s and heated up at the end of the game to pour in 14. Yigzaw, who was just 1 for 6 from long range, finished with five points.
Mt. San Jacinto had four players score in double figures. The Eagles were led by Dakota Downs’ 15 points. Lawton scored 14, Tykie Harris had 13 and Darnell Ferguson added 11.
At 150, it was one of the largest crowds of the season for Cuesta, which had not won a playoff game since 1998.
The Cougars advance to play the winner of today’s game between No. 2 Citrus and No. 18 Santa Ana on March 6 in one of four Southern California Regional Finals.
The Cougars were facing a lower-seeded team at home in the first round last season, but faltered down the stretch in a game where Blair and then-leading scorer Tom Schumacher were each assessed technical fouls.
The returning sophomores vowed not to let the same thing happen again.
“You know if you lose once, you’re out,” Mylleville said. “That’s in the back of your head. It’s not like you think about it, but it’s in the back there.”