SANTA BARBARA — Westmont senior Tugce Canitez is not only the marquee women's basketball player in the Golden State Athletic Conference, but also the entire NAIA. The 2012 GSAC and NAIA Player of the Year, who represented her native Turkey in the 2012 Olympic Games in London last summer, has seemingly everything one needs to dominate on the floor.
So integral is she to the game plan of both her Warriors and the opponent, the opponents' collective focus can wane when the 6-foot-2 forward exits the lineup.
This appeared to be the case for visiting Vanguard in the showdown for first place in the GSAC on Tuesday, as the Lions' efficiency noticeably dissipated when Canitez sat the final 10:53 of the first half with two fouls.
Though Vanguard maintained its four-point lead while Canitez was sidelined, the No. 4-ranked Lions (16-2, 7-2 in conference) failed to widen their advantage on the No. 8-ranked hosts (18-3, 9-0) into halftime. And that failure to generate more separation proved costly, when Canitez helped the Warriors pull away in the final 20 minutes and widen their lead in the GSAC standings.
"We could have had a big lead that first half when [Canitez] sat down.," Vanguard Coach Russ Davis said. "We got stuck on 27 or 29 points, made some turnovers and we didn't get the ball into Esther [Timmermans, who had 11 of her game-high 26 points before intermission]. We didn't take advantage."
Westmont, which earned a 66-56 triumph at Vanguard on Jan. 15 and has now won four straight and five of the last six against the Lions, scored the first five points of the second half, never trailed by more than two and erased its final deficit with 13:42 left in the contest.
Canitez amassed 11 of her 14 rebounds and 14 of her 22 points in the second half and sophomore reserve guard Esther Lee had 11 of her 14 points, including three of her four three-pointers, in the final 20 minutes to leave Vanguard agonizing over its missed opportunity.
"Focus is the word," Davis said after his team joined a long list of squads who failed to contain Canitez (third in the NAIA in scoring with 20.6 per game), who made all four of her first-half field-goal attempts. "Our lack of focus cost us the win today. We didn't execute offensively and we couldn't stop [the Warriors]. They ran the same set, getting [Canitez] the ball on the low block and she scored on about six of seven possessions."
While Canitez and Lee spearheaded the offense, Westmont's defense was limiting the players surrounding Timmermans, who was seven for eight from the field after halftime.
Vanguard junior guard Nicole Ballestero, who came in leading the NAIA in scoring at 21 per game, missed all six of her second-half field-goal tries to finish four for 16 from the field (25%). She finished with 11 points, as did senior Chelsea Alfafara, who was four for 12 from the field, including one for six after intermission.
"We just stopped doing what we were supposed to do.," Davis said of the lack of offensive execution.
Alison Drennan, a 5-9 guard, had 14 rebounds and a team-best four assists. But she had just one field goal in four tries and wound up with three points.
Vanguard received only three points from its bench, 19 fewer than the Westmont reserves produced. The Lions were also three for 14 from three-point range, including zero for four after halftime.
A 6-0 Lions run pulled them within 49-48 with 8:44 remaining, and Vanguard was down only 57-55 after an Alfafara 16-footer with 3:54 left.
But Westmont outscored the Lions, 13-3, down the stretch and now is in the driver's seat to repeat as GSAC regular-season champion with five regular-season conference games remaining.
"Maybe we can get them a third time [in the GSAC postseason tournament]," Davis said.
Golden State Athletic Conference
Westmont 70, Vanguard 58
VU – M. Drennan 4, Timmermans 26, Ballestero 11, Alfafara 11, A. Drennan 3, Doucette 2, Belmont 1.