By Thomas Becker
Despite capturing a handful of individual awards Wednesday afternoon, the UPEI Panthers still have some unfinished business to take care of.
The biggest prize is up for grabs and the Island squad is poised to make a run for the AUS Championship this weekend in Halifax.
Hopes are riding high and for good reason. The young Panthers are better equipped than they've been in years. Their sophomore trio – Jenna Mae Ellsworth, Carolina Del Santo and Karla Yepez – now know what it takes to win in this league and will do whatever they can to avoid the same early exit they felt last season. While veterans Kiera Rigby and Jane McLaughlin lead this youthful nucleus into battle one last time, looking to end their careers with a title.
"Being a year older and having that experience certainly helps," said head coach Greg Gould. "We're a mature young and have experience playing in big games."
At times this season, the 11-9 Panthers were virtually unbeatable. You don't have to look much further than in late January when they dethroned the nation's No. 1 Acadia Axewomen 88-68. At other times (usually the second game of a back-to-back), they were a shadow of themselves, labouring through their offensive and defensive game plan.
Now they have no choice. If they want to hoist the championship banner, they'll have to string together three consecutive wins – a task they've only accomplished once this year.
Standing in their way first is the veteran-laden UNB Varsity Reds, who have five seniors and two fourth-year players occupying their roster. Their 10-10 record doesn't tell the full story, however, as six rotation players missed at least five games due to injury, including key pieces Hannah Currie and Grace Wade. As result, their depth has been tested and performed admirably in the face of adversity.
"UNB's the deepest team in the league and they're good. It won't be easy," Gould said.
Gould is anticipating that UNB will deploy a zone defence to counteract UPEI's ability to get to the basket.
"Just because they're in zone doesn't mean we can't take them off the dribble," he said. "We still need to be aggressive and attack them."
Rigby, who's arguably the league's best perimeter finisher, averaged a career-high 18.4 points per game (third in the AUS) and will be the focal point on offence again. And the Varsity Reds are no doubt planning for her, as well.
"When you play teams in the playoffs, one of things they're going to try to do is limit her touches. Defensively, they're going to try to take away things that we do well.
"If they're going to stop her, they're going to give up something else, so we just have to be prepared for other opportunities."
That opens the door for their perimeter players to make an impact. Ellsworth was recently named as a second-team all-star and will help carry the scoring load. As will her running mate and rookie of the year, Reese Baxendale, who's expected to use her speed to keep defences off balance.
Aside from Yepez off the bench, UPEI's depth is their greatest weakness. But big games welcome new heroes and if a combination of Annabelle Charron, Jennifer Newman, Victoria Barbour and Kimeshia Henry can deliver, then the Panthers will be even more dangerous.
Coming off a defensive player of the year award, Del Santo will continue to anchor the defence and be tasked with protecting the paint from oncoming guards. The second-year centre also led the league in rebounds and could steal a few extra possessions off the offensive glass, which could turn the tide between two evenly matched teams.
"She's the one who cleans up the stuff when we break down. She's the one who's getting us double-digit rebounds every night and we need big games from her again."
Come Friday, the test begins. The question remaining: are the Panthers up for the challenge?
"Ultimately it comes down to our own execution," Gould said. "If we want to win, we have to play at our best."
Fri. March 2
QF #1: Memorial (5th) vs. Saint Mary's (4th), 1 p.m.
QF #2: UNB (6th) vs. UPEI (3rd), 3 p.m.
Sat. March 3
SF #1: Winner QF1 vs. Acadia (1st), 1 p.m.
SF #2: Winner QF2 vs. Cape Breton (2nd), 3 p.m.
Sun. March 4
Championship Game: Winner SF #1 vs. Winner SF #2, 1 p.m.