The Cuesta College men’s basketball team was cruising through conference play in the Western State Conference-North Division.
The Cougars, who ascended to 12th in the state rankings this week, appeared well on their way to their fifth straight conference victory and sixth overall Wednesday in San Luis Obispo.
Then, up 11 with 7:34 left to play, Cuesta began to pass up fast break layups to work the clock, and it backfired in a 74-66 loss to Canyons.
Head coach Rusty Blair said the slowdown wasn’t by design. It’s just a sign that the Cougars (15-8, 4-1 WSC-N) need to respond better to being the conference frontrunner.
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“We did not go into that mode,” Blair said. “They took the initiative to do it themselves. I wanted to keep the game going high-tempo.
“And then from there, we just lost our confidence. We threw the ball to the ghost. We threw it to the other team. We fumbled the ball around, and you see what happened. It’s that easy.”
It will be a little easier to catch Cuesta in the standings with one more game left in the first half of conference play. Canyons, Ventura and Moorpark, whom Cuesta visits this weekend, are all tied for second place at 3-1.
“No excuses,” Blair said. “We’re not as good as we’re billed to be. We’re not the 12th-ranked team in the state, by no means are we, but now we have to come back, and we have to see the characters of the players. How will they react to losing a very important home game?”
Alex Igual led Cuesta with a game-high 22 points, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range, and grabbed five rebounds. Brett Hartshorne added 15 and seven rebounds, and Oscar Pedroso scored 13 with a game-high nine rebounds.
Dalibor Nonkovic had a team-high 17 points and seven rebounds for Canyons (9-8), which also got 16 points apiece from Roman Delgado and David Horst.
Things broke Cuesta’s way when Canyons lost its leading scorer to an ankle still injury early in the second half.
Ilya Ilyayev, the conference’s fourth-leading scorer at 16.8 points per game, went down hard leaping for a post entry pass and had to be helped off the court with Canyons leading 40-38 with 13:44 left. He had just six points on two 3-pointers before going out.
Upon Ilyayev’s departure, Cuesta went on a 17-4 run to take a 55-44 lead on a 3-pointer by Pedroso with 7:34 left.
Then came Cuesta’s passive offensive phase and a run of turnovers. In total, Cuesta turned it over 21 times.
Still trailing 55-54 with 3:41 left, Canyons capped steals on back-to-back possessions with a layup by Bijon Isles and a one-handed jam by Nonkovik and led the rest of the way.
Hartshorne was then whistled for throwing an elbow under pressure near midcourt, and Pedroso was called for a technical for slapping after the whistle as he tried to intentionally put Canyons on the free-throw line, where Canyons put it away from there.
Cuesta had erased a double-digit first-half lead by Canyons to take a 32-31 lead into the break, a consistent characteristic of Cuesta’s season so far.
“We’ve been getting down early and then coming back and fighting back to get over the hump and then staying over the hump,” Blair said. “Today, we didn’t stay over the hump.”
Canyons 84, Cuesta 82
Miriam Zabinski scored a game-high 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, but the Cuesta sophomore missed a potential game-tying free throw with seven seconds left and was unable to haul in a hurried pass from teammate Katie Rodriguez in time to attempt a last shot as time expired.
“I think the last play typified the way it was going,” Cuesta head coach Ron Barba said. “We had horrible turnovers tonight.
“We had every opportunity to finish this thing off way ahead.”
Cuesta (18-4, 3-2 WSC-N), ranked No. 12 in the state, had the ball underneath with 43.5 seconds left and the score tied at 81, but point guard Melisa Lemus was forced to call timeout on the ensuing inbounds play, and coming out of the timeout, Canyons (8-11, 2-2 WSC-N) forced her to throw the ball away with tight defense.
That gave Canyons the chance for the go-ahead score, and Canyons converted as Ashley Oliver slipped the defense and scored wide open underneath as the Cuesta defense concentrated on Keiona Mathews.
Mathews, the leading scorer in the conference at 22.4 points per game coming into Wednesday, scored
30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead Canyons, as the game turned into a back-and-forth duel between her and Zabinski down the stretch.
Cuesta held a nine-point lead with seven minutes left, but Canyons rallied to tie it before Kaylee Williams converted a three-point play to give Cuesta a 71-68 lead with 6:21 left.