By Thomas Becker
With the championship core entering their final years as Panthers, head coach Matt Gamblin has been hard at work continuing to build a perennial contender rather than settling for a one-hit wonder.
With the recent addition of Ecuadorian Karla Benitez, UPEI found a player who can contribute right away and evolve into a foundational piece for the future.
At just 17-years-old, Benitez already has an accomplished resumé that would make many players green with envy. In recent years, she participated in a couple programs with ties to the NBA, including Basketball Without Borders and the NBA Academy Latin America.
And in 2019, Benitez suited up for the U17 Ecuadorian national team during the South American Women's Championship where they placed fourth after losing to Argentina in the bronze medal game. During the tournament, the 5-foot-10 forward averaged a team-high 10.8 points per game on 48.8 per cent shooting, while adding 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists. It's no wonder she was high on many international recruiting lists.
Gamblin now had to find a way to convince her to come to UPEI. With the help of Panther co-captain and Ecuadorian native Karla Yepez, they were able to pull it off.
"The main connector here was Karla (Yepez). The two Karla's know each other well, and Yepez has been extremely helpful in the process," Gamblin said.
While Gamblin had his eye on the international standout, Benitez was keeping close tabs on the team up north.
"I was following the team because there's an Ecuadorian playing there. I had the chance to follow the great season they had last year, and I was immediately interested in playing and studying at UPEI," Benitez said.
"I wanted to play overseas and when this opportunity came along, I was ready for it. I'm excited for this new chapter, as I look to better myself both as a student-athlete and as a person."
Five years ago, the Panthers struck gold when they acquired both Yepez and Carolina Del Santo, who brought with them a wealth of knowledge and international experience. Gamblin's anticipating more of the same with Benitez.
"Karla fits very well with our team and our style of play. She is physical, athletic, long and she's a worker. She checks a lot of boxes for us," he said. "Most importantly, Karla has a strong work ethic and a strong desire to succeed."
Benitez thrives underneath the basket and brings the size, versatility and defensive acumen of a Yepez. She also loves attacking the rim and will benefit from playing alongside veteran stars Jenna Mae Ellsworth and Reese Baxendale, who are two of the best at beating their defender off the dribble. But most of all, she loves to win, and right now there's no better place to do that than UPEI.
"I'm excited to join a successful program," she said. "I'm proud to become a Panther and I look forward to competing alongside players who want to win as much as I do."