By Thomas Becker
As the final buzzer sounded, Queen's We Are The Champions blared loudly in the background, as UPEI's bench erupted toward centre court in celebration, with each player embracing one another.
At that moment, the Panthers were crowned the 2020 AUS champions.
"I'm just so happy for our whole team, we played such a great game," said Reese Baxendale, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. "We worked so hard all season for this and it's just awesome."
Baxendale scored 25 points and added seven assists, five rebounds and three steals, as the Panthers took down the Acadia Axewomen 78-59 in the title game to the delight of a passionate fanbase, who made the trip to Halifax for the historic moment.
"It speaks to all the hard work and growth of this team," said Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin.
The bench boss mentioned how he sported the same shirt and how the team selected the same bench as last year to suggest that even though everything around them was the same — including the opponent — this year's team was different, and they had what it took to claim the title.
"I told them that they're a different team from last year. They've grown so much and compete so hard," Gamblin said.
Jenna Mae Ellsworth has been a valued member of the team for four years and she finally got a chance to hoist the trophy she's coveted for so long. She finished with 24 points, five assists and five rebounds in the finale and was named a tournament all-star.
"It's incredible," Ellsworth said. "We have a lot of the same group and we've worked hard for this moment."
One thing this team didn't lack was confidence. When asked yesterday how his team would respond in a potential rematch with Acadia, Gamblin simply said "they're ready." He was right.
"We changed our mindset and our confidence was high," Ellsworth said. "We were the team to beat this year."
Lauren Rainford drew the assignment of guarding all-star Haley McDonald to begin the game and the rookie made the veteran work for her seven first-quarter points. McDonald had her shot blocked by Rainford with three minutes remaining in the frame, which led to a layup to push the lead to 15-11, forcing Acadia to call the first timeout. The Axewomen responded with a 7-2 run and took a 18-17 lead into the second.
The big stage and bright lights of Scotiabank Centre didn't faze Rainford, who put together another double-figure performance with 13 points.
"It's a testament to everything we've done this season and it feels really good to get the outcome we wanted," Rainford said.
The reigning conference MVP gave her team a huge lift in the opening minutes of the second. After the Axewomen extended the lead to six, Ellsworth scored eight straight points to tie it at 25 apiece.
With four minutes remaining in the half, Rainford drilled a corner three to pull them ahead 30-29. Moments later, Carolina Del Santo connected with Lauren Fleming on a backdoor cut, which was followed by a Baxendale three, as the Panthers extended their lead 37-29 before going into the half 37-31.
Del Santo gave the team good minutes off the bench over the weekend and made life difficult on the Axewomen when they dared to come into the paint. To see her team come out on top after three straight years of heartbreak at the hands of Acadia made all the pain worth it.
"We knew we could do it," she said. "I'm the proudest person in the world right now."
Mia Roberts came out of the break firing and connected on a pair of triples to trim the deficit to 41-37. Each time the Axewomen cut it to four, the Panthers punched back. A layup by Karla Yepez and another three from Baxendale made it a 52-41 game. McDonald scored the final four points of the quarter and brought it back to single digits, 54-47.
Acadia played desperate in the fourth, looking to inch closer. Midway through the quarter, the Axewomen picked off a pass and had a clear lane to the basket, but Ellsworth — who captured this season's Defensive Player of the Year award — raced down the court and stole the ball back from Jayda Veinot, leading to a Baxendale three-pointer the other way to make it 62-56.
The Axewomen continued to push and after McDonald connected from beyond the arc, Gamblin decided to call a timeout in a three-point game. Again, his timely decision-making paid off as his veteran players stepped up. Drives to the basket from Yepez and Ellsworth mixed in with a Baxendale triple led to nine straight points for the Panthers, who took command 71-59 with 3:19 remaining.
Yepez's leadership down the stretch was on full display. She consistently took her defender off the dribble and went inside for some tough baskets to close out the win. The fourth-year forward was the only player who finished with a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. That tough and resilient mentality was evident not only in this battle, but throughout the season and over time it became their identity.
"We faced adversity all season. We battled injuries and we lost the last three years to them," Yepez said. "We learned from that and we didn't let it define us."