IRVINE — When it came time to tally the titles, Vanguard University women's basketball coach Russ Davis was suddenly at a loss for details. It was attention to detail, however, that helped the No. 8-ranked Lions upset the No. 3-ranked Warriors, 63-57, in the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament final on Tuesday at Concordia University.
It was the 11th GSAC crown of Davis' 17-season tenure, but the first in three years, as the Lions (23-3) earned the conference's guaranteed berth in the NAIA Division I tournament field, with action in Frankfort, Ky., from March 13-19. It will be Vanguard's 14th trip to the national tournament, all under Davis.
Among the minutia mastered this time by Davis' squad, which had dropped both regular-season meetings to Westmont (66-56 at home on Jan. 15 and 70-58 in Santa Barbara on Feb. 5), was more sound inside positioning, absolute intensity from tip to buzzer, better shooting and more efficient defense.
But another alteration was the production of junior all-conference guard Nicole Ballestero, who made eight of 13 field-goal tries (61.5%), including two of four from three-point range, on her way to a game-high 22 points. Ballestero, who had shot a combined 28.9% from the field in the first two Westmont games (11 for 38), including one for seven from threedom (14.3%), found her range about five minutes in. That range was typically away from the size and strength of the Westmont bigs, including two-time conference and 2012 NAIA Player of the Year Tugce Canitez, and inside the aggressive and athletic Westmont guards.
"I like the mid-range, but I take what they give me," said Ballestero, who added nine rebounds.
"Ballestero was fantastic tonight," said Westmont Coach Kirsten Moore. "She set the tone in the first half. Both [previous] times we played them, she really struggled, percentage-wise, from the field. We switched to the zone in the second half and had more success, but we were struggling to guard her tonight."
Ballestero had 13 first-half points to help the designated visitors earn a 39-31 intermission advantage, despite losing the rebounding battle, 18-11, at the half, including nine offensive rebounds for the Warriors.
Canitez, who averaged 22.5 points and 15 rebounds in the two regular-season meetings with Vanguard, led the hosts with 19 points and 12 rebounds. But her final bucket with 9:13 left, that gave Westmont a lead (55-54) for the first time since the opening minutes, turned out to be the team's final field goal of the game.
After two free throws with 5:21 remaining put the Warriors up, 57-56, Vanguard scored the final seven points of the game to take home the championship trophy.
Two-time all-conference senior Esther Timmermans had 14 points. including the go-ahead bucket with 5:08 remaining and four free throws in the subsequent minutes for the winners. She was also a factor in Canitez fouling out with 2:17 to go.
Senior Alison Drennan had nine points and 11 rebounds to help the Vanguard effort, while senior Chelsea Alfafara had six points, a team-best three assists and a game-high three steals. Alfafara matched Ballestero with two three-pointers each for the winners.
Senior Marie Drennan chipped in eight rebounds and two points, while freshman reserve Samantha Doucette had six points to outscore the Westmont bench all by herself, 6-5.
"I feel like our team did really well tonight," Alison Drennan said. "We did all the team stuff we needed to do. We helped out and helped the helper, all that sort of stuff."
Alison Drennan and others said the victory will increase confidence heading to Kentucky, where Westmont and likely The Master's College will also compete after gaining at-large berths.
"This [win] is great," Alison Drennan said. "We needed this. I think we're going to do really well at nationals, now."
Davis was also thrilled to entertain the national Fox College Sports television audience.
"That's a good win for us," said Davis, who upon being asked to report to the telecasters sitting courtside at midcourt kiddingly asked, "Can they only show my right side?
"All three losses [the other to The Master's, which at one time was ranked in the top 10] are to top-10 teams," Davis, who has coached in four NAIA Final Fours and earned a national championship in 2008, said. "I think we're going to make a pretty good run at nationals."
Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament final
Vanguard 63, Westmont 57
VU – Timmermans 14, M. Drennan 2, Ballestero 22, A. Drennan 9, Alfafara 6, Doucette 6, Belmont 4.
3-pt. goals – Ballestero 2, Alfafara 2.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Wmnt – Sampson 8, Canitez 19, Lee 15, Gougis 10, Hensley 0, Wilber 3, Sende 2.
3-pt. goals – Lee 3, Canitez 1, Wilber 1.
Fouled out – Canitez.
Technicals – None.
Halftime – VU, 39-31.