By Thomas Becker
If the league isn't paying attention to her, they will now.
UPEI's Carolina Del Santo is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year and on Saturday, the center proved once again why opposing guards should be wary when driving in the painted area.
On average, Del Santo leads the league in rebounds (12.1) and blocked shots (2.7) and is ninth in steals (1.5). In Saturday's 61-59 win over the Memorial Sea-Hawks, Del Santo dwarfed those numbers with an impressive stat line that included 12 points, 24 rebounds, six steals and four blocks, further proving her case as an elite defender.
"I thought she did a great job for us today," said Panthers head coach Greg Gould. "You can go out and pressure a little harder if you know you got some backup. And Carolina is very capable of blocking shots."
It was an important win for the Panthers (8-7), who kept pace with Cape Breton Capers in the hunt for a first-round bye.
"It's a huge win for us," Gould said. "It was one of those ugly games where you just grind it out, grind it out, grind it out and hope you survive at the end."
Both teams came out strong in a high scoring opening five. Kiera Rigby scored seven quick points for UPEI as they took a 16-12 lead. After burning a timeout, Memorial (7-8) reeled off an 11-4 run to take a 23-20 advantage into the second. All five Sea-Hawks starters scored in the quarter with Brooklyn Wright's seven points leading the way.
The visiting Sea-Hawks extended it to 28-20 in the early minutes of the second, but the Panthers responded with a 13-2 run to pull back ahead 33-30. Jenna Mae Ellsworth was the catalyst in the extended run, scoring seven of the 13. She finished with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Karla Yepez capped off the half with a long-range buzzer beater as UPEI carried a 36-32 lead into the break. Ellsworth had 10 at the half, while Wright led all scorers with 13 of her game-high 20 points. Anchored by Del Santo's presence in the middle, UPEI's defence was smothering in the frame as they held their opponent to just nine points, while scoring 16 themselves.
After trading baskets for most of the third quarter, Memorial stunned the home crowd with a quick 5-0 run that ended with a deep bank shot at the buzzer by Jane Baird, giving her team a 47-46 lead heading into the final 10.
The back and forth affair continued in the fourth before a Rigby go-ahead triple gave the Panthers a 57-54 edge. With three minutes to spare, the home team pushed it to five for their largest advantage of the half.
But the Sea-Hawks weren't going down without a fight. With 34 seconds remaining and a chance to tie it at the free throw line, Wright – a 68 per cent free throw shooter – missed both, as the Panthers held on for the 61-59 final.
The Panthers look for the weekend sweep against Memorial as the two teams square off again on Feb. 4 at 1 p.m.
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan