COSTA MESA — It had been three years since the Vanguard University women's basketball team had made the Golden State Athlete Conference tournament championship game, but Coach Russ Davis wasn't concerned about that Friday night.
Davis expects his teams to be near the top of conference every year, if not the nation. But the last two years, the Lions had lost in the GSAC semifinals.
"I didn't even think about [making the GSAC Tournament title game for the first time since 2010]," Davis said. "We've been in so many over the years. In my 17 years here, we've probably played in about 12 or 13 of them."
The Lions looked at the top of their game Friday at The Pit. They played like a team that is peaking at the right time.
The result was a 78-55 tournament semifinal victory over Biola that pushed Vanguard back into that title game. No. 2-seeded Vanguard (21-3) will play top-seeded Westmont on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Concordia University.
Westmont, ranked No. 3 in the NAIA, defeated San Diego Christian, 62-47, in another tournament semifinal Friday. The Warriors won both conference games against No. 8 Vanguard, by an average of 11 points.
Vanguard was ranked No. 1 nationally at the time of the teams' first meeting of the season, a 66-56 Westmont victory on Jan. 15 at Vanguard.
"It's going to be tough," Davis said of facing Westmont and two-time GSAC Player of the Year Tugce Canitez again. "We're looking forward to it. It'll be on TV [on FOX College Sports], and it'll be a lot of fun."
Vanguard was paced Friday night by senior forward Esther Timmermans, who had team-highs of 22 points and seven rebounds. The Lions led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but Biola cut its deficit to nine, at 34-25, at halftime.
No. 6-seeded Biola (16-17) then opened the second half with a three-pointer by freshman Abby Chapman. Biola Coach Bethany Miller raised her hands from the bench before the shot even went up, then watched as it swished through the net to narrow her team's deficit to six.
Chapman had scored a career-high 21 points Wednesday as Biola upset No. 3-seeded The Master's College. But the Lions didn't allow Biola a repeat two days later.
Vanguard went on an 18-9 run, featuring a trio of baseline jumpers from Timmermans. By the time Chapman made another three-pointer, with 12:45 left in the game, Vanguard had opened up a 52-37 edge.
Junior point guard Nicole Ballestero had 14 points, five assists and six steals for the Lions. Senior guard Alison Drennan added 11 points and seven assists and Davis also highlighted the play of junior Taylor Belmont, who had 10 points and four assists off the bench.
"It was a really great team effort, really exciting," Timmermans said. "I think we had a really good week of practice, and that helped. We were ready, with a week off of games, to come in fired up."
Vanguard dominated in nearly every category, out-rebounding the Eagles, 39-26, and committing just 10 turnovers compared to 21 from the visitors.
Freshman guard Aubree Mittel led Biola with 12 points, all in the first half. Vanguard also limited Biola junior center Adijat Adams, the Eagles' lone All-GSAC honoree, to nine points and 11 rebounds on four-of-13 shooting. Adams had seven turnovers.
Vanguard led by as many as 27 points in the second half, after two free throws from Belmont. That highlighted another strength for the hosts, who were 19 of 20 from the free-throw line.
The Lions will need a similarly sharp game to hang with Westmont on Tuesday night. But Timmermans said the Lions are excited.
"I think in both [regular-season] games we were right there," she said. "We just couldn't close it out. If we just put 40 minutes together, I think we have a good shot."