LA MIRADA — With what most believe is the best player in the NAIA and the top-ranked team in the nation surrounding him in every timeout huddle, Vanguard University Coach Russ Davis sometimes has to feign concern.
Indeed, the Lions are trouncing opponents by an average of nearly 34 points per game and no one has gotten closer than 15, despite a string of minor injuries and performance lulls that have allowed him to start only three players in all 10 games.
So there Davis was early in his team's Biola Winter Classic opener against Viterbo University of Wisconsin, mumbling misgivings to his assistants and triggering three timeouts in the first 10 minutes, at one point asking his squad, rhetorically "Can we play basketball?"
The score was deadlocked, 2-2, when Davis inquisitive sarcasm slipped between his lips, only to see Viterbo (1-13 no less) create a turnover and score to take a 4-2 advantage just more than five minutes into the contest at Biola.
Then, in a span of 2 minutes, 34 seconds, Vanguard sank four three-pointers in a 16-5 surge that led to an 18-9 advantage that only continued to grow during the rest of an 87-50 trouncing that upped the Lions record to 10-0.
"I think it was hard for us to get going and we never got in sync," Davis said with a wry smile after his team handled the designated hosts in every department. "What's scary is, we still had 87 points. We usually get in rhythm, but we never got in rhythm tonight."
It would be hard to include senior guard Nicole Ballestero in that assessment as the returning All-American and front-runner for NAIA Player of the Year honors this season produced a game-high 31 points. Ballestero, who netted half of her 12 three-point attempts, finished 11 for 21 from the field and three for three from the foul line. She added five rebounds, a team-best three steals and two assists, while somehow also managing to commit a solitary turnover.
"Nicole is pretty good all the time." Davis said when asked about his consistent star's continuing mastery of the competition.
Ballestero had 18 at halftime, when fellow wing and sophomore sharpshooter Samantha Doucette had 10 points, including her two three-pointers on the night.
Doucette, slowed by a tightening quadriceps muscle — the same ailment sidelined 6-foot-3 senior Leigha Bednar, who had started five of the first nine contests — wound up with 16 points and three rebounds.
Senior point guard Taylor Belmont, whose play was dissected by Davis in the first half, finished with eight points, a game-high 11 assists and two steals.
The Lions had 25 assists and six turnovers as a team, enough to make any coach giddy on the ride home. And Davis was clearly impressed as he noted the symmetry of the two statistics.
Vanguard shot 51.5% from the field in the second half to finish 46.5% for the game and netted 11 of 35 three-point attempts, which Davis said was a season-high.
Vanguard won the rebounding battle, 35-25, forced 24 turnovers, while holding the V-Hawks (who were without their top scorer, Jenna Engh, who had averaged 20.6 in the first 12 contests, before donning crutches on Friday), to 31.4% shooting from the field.
Davis dispensed praise to 6-0 junior Nicole Zugasti, who had four points and three rebounds in 10 minutes and made both of her field-goal attempts.
"[Zugasti, a transfer from Citrus College] is going to help us in [Golden State Athletic Conference[ play," Davis said.
Melissa Norman, a 6-3 junior transfer from Nebraska-Kearney, led the Lions with seven rebounds and four blocked shots to go with her two points.
Vanguard closes out the four-team, round-robin tournament Saturday at 5:30 p.m. against Bethesda of California.
Biola Winter Classic