By Thomas Becker
How do you top a season in which the UPEI Panthers had two all-stars, the Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year?
By winning a championship, that's how.
2017-18 was a memorable season for the Panthers and their playoff run was equal parts thrilling as it was heartbreaking. The Island squad took care of business against UNB and Cap Breton in the AUS Championships before Acadia claimed the title in the finale.
Reigning Rookie of the Year Reese Baxendale was stellar on the league's biggest stage, where she averaged 19.3 points per game. But even she admitted fatigue may have played a factor in the painful outcome.
"Last year's playoffs were exciting and we had a great run, but it's difficult to play three games in three days at that high a pace."
Lesson learned. This year, the Panthers have their eyes set on capturing one of two byes, so they can preserve energy for the final stretch. And part of that formula is getting contribution from more players.
"Each game you need different players to make big plays. It has to be a complete team effort," she said. "I think the experience of having a great playoff run will serve us well this time around, as we have the same core back again."
Rookie head coach Matt Gamblin brings championship experience to UPEI after capturing a title with the Mount Allison Mounties and is echoing the same message. When teams focus their attention on Baxendale and all-star point guard Jenna Mae Ellsworth, it's imperative to get production from others, especially after Kiera Rigby's departure.
"All we can try to do is put them situations where they can be successful," Gamblin said of his supporting cast. "Based off growth in the summer, players have put themselves in better positions. It's nothing that I did, it's them coming back more prepared and ready to contribute."
Still, everyone knows that in the game of basketball you need at least one star who can catch fire quickly and pull their team to the finish line. The Panthers are fortunate to have a pair in guards Ellsworth and Baxendale, who complement each other on the hardwood.
"Reese and I have been playing against each other since we were young and are long-time friends," Ellsworth said. "We play a similar type of game. We both like to attack the basket hard and get open looks."
The backcourt duo is unquestionably key to the team's success and they'll be at the centre of Gamblin's up and down style of play that encourages attacks to the rim.
"They're very important to this team and they create mismatch problems for other teams. They're also both great on-the-ball defenders," Gamblin said.
Carolina Del Santo's emergence as a defensive juggernaut is another bright spot in a lineup brimming with talent. The Defensive Player of the Year set an AUS record with 250 total rebounds (12.5 on average) and led the league in blocks with 2.5 a night.
Having someone as proficient and intimidating as Del Santo gives Gamblin the freedom to ask his perimeter players to apply more pressure on the ball, knowing his ball-hawking centre is waiting in the paint if a guard breaks free. It's a great advantage to have on their side, as the bench boss is a firm believer that defence is a foundational piece to a championship.
"Carolina's timing and anticipation is off the charts," he said. "It allows us to be aggressive in front of her knowing she's back there protecting the paint."
All that said, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Panthers were ranked first in the annual AUS rankings that were released Nov. 1. But now they have a target on their back, as teams will be gunning for them.
"It will take a lot of hard work on and off the court. We need to challenge ourselves and teammates every day in order to get better," Ellsworth said. "After losing in the finals last year, I think it's pushed us to want it even more this year."
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