Faulkner: Trio makes VU title threat

Good things usually come in threes for the Vanguard University women's basketball team, but that typically refers to the propensity and proficiency with which Coach Russ Davis' Lions hoist three-point attempts from beyond the arc.

This season, however, the thrice-as-nice sentiment might better refer to the Lions' talented three-player nucleus that includes NAIA first-team All-American Nicole Ballestero.

Ballestero, a 5-foot-8 senior guard, is fourth in the NAIA in scoring (22.9 per game) for the top-ranked Lions (11-0), who have been trouncing opponents by an average of more than 31 points per contest.

Sophomore Sammy Doucette, a 5-11 guard-forward, is having a breakout season, averaging 18 points per contest, while senior point guard Taylor Belmont, second in the NAIA in assists (7.4 per game) is also contributing 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per outing.

The threesome has started all 11 games for the Lions, who open Golden State Athletic Conference play on Tuesday at San Diego Christian at 5:30 p.m.

Not only are Ballestero, Doucette and Belmont producing nearly 63% of the Lions' points this season, the trio's combined average of 53.1 per game is nearly matching the average total of Vanguard's opponents (53.8).

Four other players have shared the other two starting spots, but much of that has had to do with injuries to junior Melissa Norman, a 6-2 transfer from Nebraska-Kearney, and junior guard Ashleigh Anderson, a transfer from Clackamas Community College in Oregon, by way of Oregon City, Ore., from which Davis has culled a handful of top players over the years, including Belmont.

Both Norman and Anderson have recently returned to the starting lineup and figure to provide strong support to a team attempting to claim the program's first GSAC regular-season crown since 2010, but the 11th conference title in Davis' 18 seasons at the helm.

A challenge is expected from No. 8-ranked Westmont (8-4), the defending NAIA and GSAC champion which lost two-time NAIA and GSAC Player of the Year Tugce Canitez, a 6-2 center, to graduation. Helping lessen the loss of Canitez has been the play of 6-1 senior Kelsie Sampson. Sampson, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on her way to All-GSAC recognition as a junior, is contributing 20.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season.

The Master's College (11-3), is ranked No. 12 nationally, while Hope International (11-3) and San Diego Christian (8-4) have also received votes in the Top-25 poll.

Vanguard is set to visit Westmont on Jan. 21 and will play host to the Warriors on Feb. 11. Vanguard plays host to The Master's on Feb. 25.

•The UC Irvine women's team (7-7) opens Big West Conference play on Thursday at 5 p.m. at Long Beach State (8-6). Only Hawaii (6-6) joins the Anteaters and 49ers as teams without a losing record in nonconference play this season.

Coach Doug Oliver's Anteaters have surprised some, relying heavily on senior double-double machine Camille Buckley and senior guard Jennifer Tsurumoto.

Buckley, a second-team All-Big West performer last season, is averaging 14.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Tsurumoto is averaging 13.4 points per contest for a squad that also relies upon junior Methlyn Onomoguho, senior Jazmyne White, senior Kelly Meggs and senior Lauren Spinazze.

UCI finished tied for eighth in the then-10-team conference in 2013 and was picked to finish eighth in the nine-team Big West this season.

Defending champion Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, picked to repeat this season, is 6-7 despite the presence of returning conference Player of the Year Molly Schlemer, a 6-5 senior center averaging 17.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

Hawaii, with returning first-team all-conference performer Kamilah Jackson leading the way (16.7 points and 10 rebounds per contest), was picked second in the preseason poll.

Cal State Northridge was picked third, but the Matadors are 4-10, while Long Beach State was picked fourth.

UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara are both 5-8, while Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside take identical 4-9 records into conference play.

Cal Poly tipped off conference play late Wednesday night at Hawaii.

•The Orange Coast College women's team began the season with great promise at 8-2, but had dropped five of its last six heading into Friday's Orange Empire Conference opener at Irvine Valley at 7:30 p.m.

Further, Coach Mike Thornton, in his 25th season at the helm, expressed disappointment over his players' willingness to be coached after a December tournament loss.

The Pirates feature offensive balance with sophomore guard Dayanara Armenta (11.8 ppg), sophomore forward Raechelle Davis (11.1), sophomore guard Chanelle DiCroce (10.8) and freshman forward Jasmine Matar (10.6) all sharing the load.

The OEC appears top be up for grabs with IVC (11-5), Santa Ana (10-6), Cypress (9-8) and Saddleback (9-8) among the teams that had successful nonconference campaigns.

Riverside (5-9) and Fullerton (4-11) appear to be pushing uphill.

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