Junior Taylor Belmont, left, and the rest of the Vangaurd University women's basketball team faces a big week in GSAC play. (KENT TREPTOW, Daily Pilot / January 31, 2012)

The Vanguard University women's basketball team is only halfway through its Golden State Athletic Conference schedule. But the Lions (15-3, 9-1 in conference and ranked No. 9 in the NAIA) are just four days away from potentially determining their legitimacy as a conference title contender.

Coach Russ Davis' squad, on a seven-game winning streak, hits the road for conference clashes with GSAC-leading and No. 4-ranked Westmont (20-1, 10-0) on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. and at No. 12-ranked Azusa Pacific (15-5, 8-2), the defending national champion, on Friday at 5:30 p.m.

"It's not going to be easy, but I think we're excited to see where we're at," said Vanguard Coach Russ Davis. "To stay in the hunt, we need to play well."

Vanguard has played better recently, upping its defensive intensity and its aggressiveness on the boards. The Lions lead the GSAC in defense (52.3 points allowed per game) in conference games only. They have also posted a plus-10 rebounding average against conference foes, tops in the GSAC.

Yet this year, unlike most of Davis' 16-season tenure, Vanguard has struggled in the shooting department.

The Lions are shooting 38.4% from the field and 28.1% from three-point range in their first 18 games.

"We're trying so hard defensively and working so hard on so many things, we're just not making open shots," said Davis, who is seeking his 11th conference title. "It's just not falling our way right now, but its going to come around. We have shooters, we just need to have makers."

Vanguard's inconsistent shooting was apparent in a Jan. 24 win at Hope International. The Lions were eight for 14 from three-point range in the first half of a 104-37 triumph, but were just two for 10 in the second half.

Leading the way for Vanguard is fifth-year senior Paige Halberg and junior post Esther Timmermans, a 6-foot-1 Australian who is in her first season with the Lions after transferring from Murray State College.

Halberg, whose 33 minutes per game are eight more than the second-most on the team (Timmermans), is averaging 10.2 points and 4.7 rebounds. Assuming much of the point guard duties, she leads the squad in assists (92), steals (30) and blocked shots (15).

"Paige provides really strong leadership," said Davis, who guided Vanguard to the NAIA title in 2008, when Halberg was a freshman starter. "She has been in the program for five years and she gives us a calming influence."

Timmermans leads the Lions in scoring (11.3) and rebounding (6.6) and is shooting 59.6% from the field (84 for 141).

Vanguard has been bolstered lately by the play of 5-11 junior Allison Burns, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench in a 43-38 home win against Biola on Saturday.

Westmont, which has won 15 straight, is led by 6-2 junior Tugce Canitez, who is averaging 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game. Canitez, a native of Turkey who transferred from North Idaho Community College, averaged 27 points and 16.5 rebounds in a pair of wins last week to collect GSAC Player of the Week laurels. She has 11 double-doubles this season.

Vanguard lost to Westmont, 68-49, at home on Jan. 3.

The Lions edged APU, 53-52, on Jan. 7 at The Pit.

Baseball season opens Friday for Orange Coast College, which plays host to Cuesta at 2 p.m.

The OCC baseball facility has been upgraded with restrooms, a new press box and a coaches office, occupied for the 20th season this year by John Altobelli.

Altobelli had a bit of an offseason upgrade himself, undergoing heart surgery to repair a weakened valve in mid-December.

Altobelli, 48, has been back on the field for weeks and is expected to assume his usual duties, which include coaching third base, this season.