By Thomas Becker
On the 21st anniversary of their last title, the UPEI Panthers are hoping to repeat history at this weekend's Atlantic University Sport (AUS) Championships.
The Panthers had their most successful regular season in more than two decades, finishing with an impressive 17-3 record. And for the first time in 30 years, they went undefeated at home (10-0), while capturing a bye in the opening round of the playoffs.
After a thrilling campaign, head coach Matt Gamblin has full confidence in his squad as they embark on their final journey to Halifax.
"We have to be who we are, take confidence in the work we've put in all season and as Bill Belichick says, 'do your job.'"
UPEI's identity has been defined by their defence. All season long they've made their opponents uncomfortable with their quickness and physicality.
And if the common adage "defence wins championships" is true, then the Panthers have a chance to accomplish something truly special.Throughout the 20-game slate, they led the league in opponent points per game (62.8), opponent field goal percentage (35.9 per cent) and opponent three-point percentage (26.7 per cent).
However, the path to a title won't be easy and will probably have to go through the league's top scoring teams in the Acadia Axewomen (78.3 points per game) and Cape Breton Capers (78.8 points per game), so it's imperative the defence delivers as advertised.
"We need to continue to pay attention to the details and be focused for 40 minutes," Gamblin said. "It's a small conference so each team knows each other very well at this point."
Anchoring that end of the floor is third-year centre, Carolina Del Santo, who earned her second straight Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the country in rebounds (265) and blocks (48). She was also named a first-team all-star for the first time. With her presence in the middle, it allows perimeter players like Jenna Mae Ellsworth to play more aggressive on opposing ball handlers, knowing there's a ball-hawking big supporting her.
The league also recognized Ellsworth for her stellar play, as she was named a second-team all-star for third consecutive year. The floor general averaged a team-high 16.7 points per game and is joined by running mate Reese Baxendale, who poured in 13.3 points a night. Together, they form a formidable backcourt that carried last year's team to the finals. They'll be counted on again to shine under the bright lights of Scotiabank Centre.
Not to be overlooked is the veteran presence of Karla Yepez and Jane McLaughlin. Yepez brings international experience that few teams have, while McLaughlin has seen everything the AUS has to offer over her five years. Their gritty style of play and ability to make big shots are qualities every championship team needs.
To the surprise of many, the Panthers' reserves came into their own in 2018-19. The bench unit, consisting of Kimeshia Henry, Lauren Fleming, Annabelle Charron, Julie Campbell and Tamara Timm each had at least one breakout game this season. Since training camp, Gamblin instilled newfound confidence in these five women and any production he gets from them would be an added bonus.
"Each time we go out and play, it's a chance to get better," Gamblin said. "We are prepared because of the work we've put in all year."
Now the stage is set, and standing between them and a championship is two wins. If they continue to play with the same defensive intensity that has led them this far and get big performances from key players, then a title could make its way back to Prince Edward Island.
"The key is to take things one game and one possession at a time, not look ahead or behind, just execute in the present moment."
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan