By Thomas Becker
The AUS will crown a new champion this season.
Reese Baxendale finished with a game-high 24 points (on 9-of-12 shooting), including a big three late in the fourth quarter, as the Panthers downed the defending champion Cape Breton Capers 78-73 Saturday afternoon.
"That was one heck of a shot she made with a tie game," said head coach Greg Gould. "That was the difference between winning and losing."
UPEI's leading scorer, Kiera Rigby, was limited to just 20 minutes due to foul trouble, which opened the door for reserve Karla Yepez who delivered in a big way. The second-year forward scored 17 points, while the entire Capers bench mustered just 12.
"What good teams do is find a way to pick up the slack when somebody else is struggling," said Gould, who'll be coaching in his first AUS final. "I thought yesterday we did that and today we did it again."
It took more than five minutes for the Panthers to get their first basket, as the Capers jumped to an early 8-2 lead.
Yepez came off the bench and drained three consecutive baskets to kick-start a struggling offence. UPEI finished the quarter on a 15-12 run to cut the deficit 20-17 after one.
"I'm happy that I could help my team win," Yepez said. "From the moment the game finished last night, I was really focused and did everything I could to be ready for today."
The Panthers opened the second with a quick 5-0 run, giving them their first lead of the game, 22-20. After trading a series of baskets, Baxendale and Jane McLaughlin drilled back-to-back triples for the 32-26 advantage.
Yepez was phenomenal in the opening half and gave UPEI a much-needed boost with 10 first-half points. Jenna Mae Ellsworth was also a key fixture in the offence. When her team laboured, Ellsworth consistently made big baskets to keep her team afloat. She put up a team-high 12 points at the break.
The Capers two-headed monster of Hannah Brown and Alison Keough combined to score 23 in the half, but their team still trailed 36-32. Keough finished the game with a team-high 22 points and 17 rebounds, while Brown chipped in with 16.
Cape Breton came out of the break strong and used an 11-2 run to storm ahead 43-38. A timeout halted the momentum and the Panthers battled back to take a slim 51-50 into the fourth. Ellsworth again was the catalyst with six of her 18 points in the frame.
Then it was Baxendale's time to shine. The rookie picked off a pass early in the fourth and took it to the hole to extend the lead 58-54. UPEI didn't settle and looked to get to the paint at every opportunity and it worked.
Down five with two minutes to go, the Capers scored a quick basket, stole the inbound pass and found Madison Munroe in the corner for the tying triple.
Baxendale wasn't going to let the game slip away and with 36 seconds remaining, she drained the go-ahead three, hitting nothing but nylon. The Panthers closed it out with free throws and booked their ticket to the finals.
"It was nice to win," Gould said. "I told them they can enjoy it for 30 seconds. Now we have to get ready for Acadia."
The battle for the AUS title begins at 1 p.m. on Sunday.