FRANKFORT, Ky. – No. 8 Vanguard (24-3) took care of business in its first round contest with No. 26 Southern Poly (Ga.) (25-6) at the 33rd Annual NAIA Division I Women's Basketball National Championship, defeating an athletic Hornets' squad 82-76 in regulation.
Junior Nicole Ballestero (Orange, Calif.), the nation's third leading scorer, paced the Lions' offense with 26 points but had much needed backing from a trio of excellent Aussie performances.
Seniors Esther Timmermans (Melbourne, Australia) and Alison Drennan (Wheelers Hill, Australia) managed a pair of huge double-doubles, while classmate Maree Drennan (Wheelers Hill, Australia) scored 13 points on perfect five-for-five shooting and was just two rebounds shy of her own double-double.
A. Drennan had a career night for the Pride, just missing the rare triple-double as she scored 14, grabbed a game-best 16 rebounds and dished a contest-leading seven assists.
"This was a really tough game," A. Drennan said. "Southern Poly is a very athletic and strong team. Whenever we thought we were pulling away, they came right back at us. We are very excited about this team win and that excitement should carry over into the rest of the tournament."
Timmermans' double-double featured 16 points and 14 rebounds. She also managed three assists and pair of blocks in the win.
"To get the first game of the tournament out of the way is always great," head coach Russ Davis said. "Esther and Nicole were strong, as always, and I thought Ali's rebounding effort was incredible. At the end of the game, Taylor (Belmont) came in and provided some much needed intensity for us. She also stepped up to hit some clutch free throws down the stretch. Overall, this was a very good team win. We will take advantage of our day of rest tomorrow and come back ready to go on Friday."
The Lions went back-and-forth with the Hornets in a fast-paced opening period which featured nine ties.
Eventually, however, the hot-shooting Hornets cooled and the Lions remained consistent to pull away by five (33-28) at the break.
The second half saw Vanguard go up by as many as 14. The Blue and Gold never trailed in the stanza but allowed Southern Poly to hit four from downtown in the final 3:59 and cut the margin to three points with 41 seconds on the clock.
Free throws helped the Pride survive the late scare and Vanguard pulled away to claim the six-point victory.
Vanguard shot 51.6 percent (33-64) from the floor in the competition and hit half (4-8) of its 3-point tries. Three of Vanguard's long balls belonged to Ballestero.
The Hornets went just 35.1 percent (27-77) from the field but managed 11-of-21 from behind the arc.
Southern Poly's Ashlie Billingslea led all players with 28 points. She hit five from downtown for the Hornets. Sarah Ogoke nabbed a double-double for Southern Poly with 25 points and 12 boards. Billingslea and Ogoke tallied four and five steals, respectively, in the loss.
Vanguard advances to play the winner of MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) and William Woods (Mo.) at 1:30 p.m. PST on Friday, March 15th.