By Thomas Becker
UPEI's backcourt stole the show on the league's biggest stage Friday afternoon.
Rookie Reese Baxendale and her running mate, Jenna Mae Ellsworth, combined to score 58 points, as the Panthers took down the UNB Varsity Reds 76-70 to advance to the semifinals
Baxendale, who hails from Sussex, NB, was lights out from the field where she went 11-of-21 (5-of-11 from deep) for a career-high 30 points. Her previous high was 19.
"I was just open and the shots were dropping. It doesn't often happen for me from the three-point line," said the newly crowned rookie of the year. "It felt good tonight."
Ellsworth, meanwhile, nearly matched her teammates production with 28 points. The all-star point guard attacked the rim with ferocity and was an efficient 12-of-13 from the charity strike.
"We definitely feed off each other," Ellsworth said of her backcourt partner. "We play the same type of game – we like to push the ball and get out in transition."
With such a strong starting unit, you never know when someone will go off for career night and change the complexion of a game. Tonight, they needed their guards to pick up all-star and leading scorer, Kiera Rigby, who was held to just a single point on 0-of-12 shooting.
But make no mistake, Rigby's ability to score will be needed if the Panthers are to go all the way.
"We don't need every player to shine every game, but we know we have several players who can step up and make shots," Ellsworth said.
The Panthers jumped to a quick 6-0 start, before UNB's Mikaela Dodig and Laura Kaye countered with back-to-back triples to tie it up.
The zone defence head coach Greg Gould anticipated paid dividends for UNB, who held UPEI to just 1-of-15 shooting in the quarter after starting the game 2-of-3.
Five different players scored for the Varsity Reds as they took a 16-10 lead into the second. On the other side, Ellsworth kept her team in the game with seven points to lead all scorers.
"Because it's playoffs, everyone's excited and the tempo is up," Ellsworth said. "We just calmed down and started to hit our shots."
UNB opened up a 10-point advantage early in the frame, before the Panthers trimmed it back to three, 22-19. Each time the Varsity Reds extended their lead, UPEI clawed back, thanks in large part to Baxendale's huge 10-point quarter.
Hannah Currie scored 12 in the opening half as UNB carried a slim 34-29 lead at halftime. Currie finished with a team-high 24 points and 17 rebounds.
Baxendale continued her stellar play with two quick triples as the Panthers trimmed the deficit to 38-37 in early moments of the third. Baxendale simply could not be stopped and single-handedly pulled her team ahead 46-42 minutes later. She scored 11 in the quarter and helped UPEI take a 51-48 advantage into the fourth.
Kaye scored 10 of her 20 points in the final quarter and did everything she could to keep the Varsity Reds afloat. But it wasn't enough, as Ellsworth carried her team to the finish line with 11 in the frame.
The Panthers will now face the league's top scorer, Alison Keough (19.2 points per game) and the defending champion Cape Breton Capers in the semifinals on Sat. March 3 at 3p.m.
"It's a tough matchup, but we think Carolina, Jane and our bigs can stop them. And if we need to help them out, then we'll do whatever we can," Ellsworth said.