FULLERTON, Calif. – No. 1 Vanguard's closest contest of the season, a hard fought 80–79 victory over No. 14 Hope International, won the Pride its first Golden State Athletic Conference title since 2010 on Saturday evening. Seniors Nicole Ballestero (Orange, Calif.) and Taylor Belmont (Oregon City, Ore.) amassed 33 and 24 points, respectively, for the Lions.
Head coach and recent Vanguard Athletics Hall of Fame inductee Russ Davis has won 11 GSAC regular season championships in his career.
"I am really happy for our seniors and their teammates for winning GSAC," Davis said. "It is not easy to go an entire season as the favorite. I am so glad that we had to gut one out tonight for the title. Hope played outstanding and gave us a great battle. I have a lot of respect for them. Now we will focus one getting better every day and see where it takes us in the post season."
Vanguard led by three (38-35) at the break after trailing by as many as 10 points in the first half. The period featured three tie scores and seven lead changes. Ballestero and Belmont combined to sink five 3-pointers before the break. Belmont shot 2-for-2 from behind the arc en route to 11 points, while Ballestero nailed three of her four attempts and posted a game-high 18 points.
The Royals tied the game twice in the second, at 52-52 and 54-54 (13:53), but the Lions went on a 10-2 run over the next four minutes to extend the margin to 10 points at 66-56.
Hope continued to battle, however, and came within two points (72-70) at 3:46.
Ballestero responded with a pair of free throws and a jumper on the following two possessions to put the Blue and Gold up six with 2:19 remaining and Vanguard managed to hold onto a four-point advantage until the 17-second mark.
With 11 ticks on the game clock and Hope with the ball, the Lions suffered a defensive lapse, leaving the Royal's go-to player, Andrina Rendon, wide open at the top of the arc. Rendon, a senior playing in the last regular season home contest of her career, made VU pay for the mishap and sank to shot to bring her squad within a point of the nation's lone unbeaten team.
Vanguard inbounded the ball to Belmont, who was immediately fouled and put on the charity stripe. The Lions' point guard calmly stayed on the line as both teams went to the bench for a brief timeout, and when they returned to the floor, she sank both of the high pressure shots.
HIU got the ball back for one more try, trailing 80-77 with 6.2 second on the clock and as time ran out, junior Krystyn Jacobs took two dribbles and pulled from deep to connect at the buzzer.
Fortunately for the Pride, however, as the HIU crowd celebrated, the referees ruled that the bucket was not quite deep enough as Jacobs' toe was on the 3-point line as she released the last-second shot, to give VU the 80-79 victory.
The Lions have won 23-consecutive contests and have been ranked number one all season.
Belmont finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists. The double-double was her ninth of 2014.
Ballestero's 33 points were a game-best, and she also managed five assists in the affair.
Another senior, Leigha Bednar (Keller, Texas), scored nine and grabbed eight off of the glass for VU.
Vanguard will host No. 7 The Master's College on Tuesday in The Pit at 5:30 pm.