COSTA MESA — An import from "Down Under," Australian native and Vanguard University senior Esther Timmermans said she sometimes needs a supreme challenge to rise above her comfort level on the court.
But with Westminster College of Utah, ranked No. 4 in NAIA women's basketball, in town for a nonconference showdown with the No. 3-ranked Lions on Saturday, Timmermans and her teammates found sufficient motivation to put together their best performance of the year.
Timmermans, a 6-foot-2 post player who earned All-Golden State Athletic Conference honors as a junior, had 22 points, 15 rebounds and three assists to help the Lions (5-0) post a surprisingly easy 73-51 triumph.
Junior guard Nicole Ballestero had 25 points, making nine of 12 free-throw attempts, while senior guard Alison Drennan, another Aussie, chipped in 10 rebounds and seven points for the winners.
"Personally, I struggle playing against people who aren't as good or competitive," said Timmermans, who was pulled early to get a quick pep talk from Coach Russ Davis before producing 10 points and nine rebounds in the opening half. "I just usually play down to their level, so I like big games."
Timmermans helped the Lions raise their level collectively in their biggest game of the season. It's a victory that could help them continue to climb in the national rankings and provide confidence for a run at the GSAC championship that has eluded them the last two seasons.
"Westminster [now 8-2] is legitimate, and we just took it to them," said Davis, who was effusive with praise for his players. "That win was big for us. I'm really happy with our effort. We had a great week of practice and I knew [my players] would play hard. I'm just really proud of them."
Davis said Timmermans, who made nine of 16 field-goal attempts and was four for five from the foul line, played like an All-American. She helped the hosts mount a 42-25 rebounding advantage and double the Griffins' 14 points in the paint. Her six offensive rebounds led both teams and helped the Lions produce 21 second-chance points to the visitors' six.
"We started off a little bit slow [trailing, 4-0 into the fourth minute]," Davis said. "Esther was a little bit timid, so I took her out real quick. After that, she was a different person. She played awesome."
Ballerstero, who was seven for 13 from the field, scored 14 points in the opening half, in which Vanguard used a 17-2 run that ended with 5:00 left to eventually take a 37-26 intermission lead.
Vanguard's defense also stood out. Westminster struggled to find its offensive flow against the Lions' "21 zone," that they had struggled to perfect through their opening four wins.
"We played 21 tonight a lot more than we have," Davis said. "We've been playing a 2-3 zone."
Timmermans said the more aggressive 21 defense, a 1-2-2 alignment that stresses perimeter ball pressure, was a catalyst for her team's strong performance.
"We were just really fired up, because this was our first big game of the season," Timmermans said. "We hadn't been able to play 21 very well. We just haven't, I suppose, found our rhythm in it. So it was really exciting to play well on defense."
Vanguard forced 16 turnovers, two more then it committed, and held the Griffins to 34.6% shooting from the field (18 for 52), including eight for 29 from three-point range (27.6%).
Vanguard made 27 of 55 field-goal tries (49.1%) and was six for 11 from three-point land (54.5%).
Vanguard senior Maree Drennan had five points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and netted her first three-pointer of the season.
"Today was the most exciting game we've played," Timmermans said.