By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers are finals bound for the second time in three years.
All-stars Jenna Mae Ellsworth and Reese Baxendale led the way with a combined 45 points, as the Panthers eliminated the UNB Reds 73-60 in semifinal action.
UPEI carried a 10-point lead into the third, but an 11-4 run by the Reds cut it back down to 37-34. That's when head coach Matt Gamblin showed trust in his team and elected not to use a timeout in what could've been the turning point in the game.
"You have to trust them in that situation," he said. "I didn't want them to overthink it in a timeout."
His gutsy move paid off as his team reeled off nine straight points and pulled away late in the quarter and early in the fourth.
"We played good defence as a team and when we got out on offence my teammates hit me for open shots," said Ellsworth, who finished with a game-high 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
Ellsworth carried the team through a first quarter that saw plenty of nerves on the court. The Reds pounced on the Panthers early, as Jolianne Guay drained a three-pointer to give her team a quick 7-2 lead.
Down 14-8, Ellsworth drove to the basket for an old-fashioned three-point play, followed by layups by Karla Yepez and Carolina Del Santo to pull the Panthers ahead 15-14.
The recently-crowned MVP led all scorers with eight in the first, while all five UNB starters had at least three points each to take the 17-15 lead after one.
"Our defence is what we really focus on and it wasn't the best in the first quarter, but once we picked that up the offence came with it," Ellsworth said.
The Panthers opened the second with layups from their two all-stars to go back in front 19-17. After UNB burned a timeout, Ellsworth continued to attack the rim with back-to-back layups, before Baxendale connected on a triple to extend the lead 26-17.
UNB was held scoreless for close to seven minutes before Bailey Black drained a three-pointer. Del Santo was a big reason why with her lane intimidation. Late in the half, the fourth-year centre blocked a shot and came up with a steal that led to a pair of free throws, as the Panthers carried a 33-23 halftime lead.
"Our calling card is defence and whatever's happening on the other side of the floor, if you play defence you can work through it. And I think that's what you saw in the first half," Gamblin said.
Eva Tumwine and Grace Simpson came out of the break strong and gave the Reds a lift with nine points in a 11-4 run, which trimmed the deficit to just three. But the battle-tested Panthers countered with nine straight to make it 46-34. Ellsworth jumped into a passing lane, picked off an errant pass and drove it to the basket for the lay-in to cap off the impressive run. Baxendale, meanwhile, had nine of her 21 points in the frame, where UPEI carried a 53-38 advantage.
"I just settled into the game and did what the team needed me to do," Baxendale said.
Baxendale continued to play well in the fourth where she scored seven more points, while rookie Lauren Rainford added six in the quarter and finished with 14 points. Baxendale drilled one of her three triples midway through the fourth to put them up 64-43, all but sealing the win. The Reds outscored the Panthers 22-20 in the quarter, but ultimately fell 73-60.
UPEI will battle for a championship tomorrow at 1 p.m. against the winner of the Acadia-Memorial game later tonight. If Acadia comes out of that matchup, it'll mark the fourth year in a row that the Panthers will face them in an elimination game.
"We just have to play great defence. That's what's important right now," Baxendale said. "We trust each other so much. If we miss our assignment, we know someone else has our back."