SANTA BARBARA — The unbeaten streak and the confidence grew, while the checklist of potential stumbling blocks was significantly diminished for the No. 1-ranked Vanguard University women's basketball team Tuesday night.
In a hostile Westmont gym in which they had lost two straight against the two-time defending Golden State Athletic Conference champion that claimed its first NAIA crown last season, the Lions pulled away for a 77-71 triumph that solidifies the Costa Mesa school's status as national championship contender.
In what was the most competitive test of the season for Coach Russ Davis' visitors (14-0, 3-0 in conference), they finished the first half on a 20-4 run to gain a 48-36 advantage.
Then the No. 12-ranked Warriors (11-5, 2-1), who had defeated Vanguard five of the previous seven meetings, surged back to take leads of 55-54 and 57-56, the latter with 12:38 left in the contest.
But after junior guard Esther Lee, who came in third in the NAIA with 3.5 three-pointers per game, netted the last of her five consecutive three-pointers without a miss to knot the score at 63-63 with 8:55 left (she was zero for seven from threedom otherwise), Vanguard held the hosts to one field goal the rest of the way and relied on the clutch offensive mastery of senior All-American Nicole Ballestero to prevail.
Vanguard had been thumping opponents by a national-best 33.3 points per game and its closest game was a 15-point win. But it knew things would be contentious against the Warriors.
"I think we just came out here and had the mentality that they were going to go on their runs, but we had to kind of weather the storm," said Ballestero, who finished with a game-high 29 points and was brilliant when her team needed her most.
After 5-foot-5 senior point guard Taylor Belmont, the reigning GSAC Player of the Week after amassing 36 points, 27 rebounds and 13 assists in two conference wins last week, including a triple-double Saturday against Biola, put Vanguard ahead, 58-57, with a layup with 12:27 remaining, Ballestero went to work.
In a span of 3:44, the 5-8 guard who was the NAIA's No. 2 scorer at 22.9 per game coming in, produced 12 of Vanguard's 14 points, making five of six field-goal attempts, including two three-pointers, to help Vanguard open a 72-63 edge.
"She was incredible, but that's what [NAIA] player of the year candidates do," Davis said of his senior leader, who was 10 for 26 from the field, three for six from threedom and six for seven from the foul line, where the visitors made 17 of 19.
"I think Taylor was carrying us for a while, so then it was my turn to do something," Ballestero said.
Vanguard limited Lee to six for 17 from the field, though she finished with 22 points. And the Warriors' 6-1 senior post Kelsie Sampson, a returning all-conference performer, wound up with 16 points and nine rebounds after sitting out 13 minutes in the first half with foul trouble.
Belmont, whose determined penetration was the offense for many first-half possessions as she attacked relentlessly all night, had 18 points, while sophomore Samantha Doucette added 10 points. Both had seven rebounds, while Belmont had three assists and Doucette snatched four steals.
Vanguard also received a lift from reserves Jordie Smith, Leigha Bednar and Jamie Goff, who combined for 10 points and 15 rebounds and helped the Lions amass a 43-32 advantage on the glass. Vanguard had a 27-12 rebounding edge at halftime, including 14 offensive boards and five put-backs. The Lions, who had just four of the game's 14 turnovers, finished with an 18-7 surplus on second-chance points.
"We had such great minutes from our bench people," said Ballestero, who played all 40 minutes and did not have a foul after being whistled for her third with 19:00 left.
"That's a big step for us," Davis said. "It's what we needed, to knock these things off. We have a pretty good little rivalry with Westmont. "
"It was good for us, because we really hadn't had a close game," Ballestero said. "So, it was good to see we were mature enough to handle that and not let the crowd get to us."
Vanguard's next big test is at No. 9-ranked The Master's College (15-3, 3-0) on Feb. 4.