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Women's Basketball: No. 1 Lions respond

Reigning NAIA champion Westmont makes second-half run, but Ballestero-led Vanguard prevails on road.

January 22, 2014|By Barry Faulkner

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.

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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.

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