By Thomas Becker
It's an unconventional lineup, but it's been an effective one all season long. Now the UPEI Panthers aim to rise above the rest in their quest for an AUS championship.
With a lineup built on size and three rookies in their starting rotation – Jenna Mae Ellsworth, Karla Yepez and Carolina Del Santo – the Panthers have earned a chance to compete among the contenders participating in the annual AUS championship tournament held at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax (March 3-5).
"When we started the season we felt we had potential to be really good," said Panthers head coach Greg Gould. "We weren't sure about our depth, but we had faith in our first seven or eight players."
Led by Rookie of the Year candidate Ellsworth and her 14.1 points per game, the Panthers finished as the fourth seed with an 11-9 record and will square off in a quarter-final battle with the fifth-seeded Acadia Axewomen, who also finished 11-9.
"Our goal is to win this weekend. We have beaten every team in this league and we're ready to go," said the fourth-year bench boss.
It was a trying first month for the Panthers. After capturing their first two games, UPEI dropped five of their next six and went into the break with a 3-5 record.
"There's a process you have to go through to become a championship team and you can't go through that without taking each step."
For a young team, the first step was learning how to win.
"We had lots of new bodies, including three first-year players who haven't played at this level," Gould said. "We knew it would take a little bit of time because of our new style of play."
But things started to turn around after the Christmas break. Anchored by a strong defence – that ranks third in points allowed at 61.6 and second in opposition field goal percentage at 34.4 per cent – and an evolving offence, the Panthers climbed the standings, finishing 8-4 in their final 12 games of the season.
Veteran Kiera Rigby, who averaged 13.9 points per game, was a catalyst in UPEI's post-Christmas surge, averaging an impressive 18.3 points per game in those 12 contests.
While the rookies made plenty of headlines with their unexpected play this season, none of it would have been possible without the leadership of Rigby and third-year forward Jane McLaughlin, who finished second in defensive rebounds with 7.1 a night.
"I give a lot of credit to Kiera and Jane for the development of our rookies and allowing them to contribute the way they did," Gould said. "For us to be successful, all of those players have to play well."
Because of their success at home, where they were 8-2, and the fact they've beaten every team at least once, the Panthers' growth was fast-tracked and championship aspirations became a reality.
One thing a young team has to do is win at home – and they did just that. The next step toward a championship is learning how to win on the road, said Gould. At times they struggled away from the friendly confines, going 3-7, but they were able to nab their final two road contests, furthering those title dreams.
Now, as they prepare for the annual championship tournament in Halifax, the Panthers have little choice but to win on the road if they want to hoist the banner.
Their first hurdle is the high-powered Acadia Axewomen and reigning MVP Paloma Anderson, who led the conference in scoring (22.8 points per game) and is a strong candidate to repeat as league MVP.
"We match up well with Acadia, except for maybe Anderson," Gould said. "I'm not sure anyone in the league matches very well with her. I don't think anybody's going to stop Anderson from scoring. We don't expect to."
While limiting Anderson may be key in this quarter-final battle, the Panthers have to be aware of Anderson's backcourt mate Chanel Smith, who finished fourth in scoring with 14.7 per contest.
"We have to do a better job on players around her (Anderson) if we want to win."
It will be a test of which system prevails – the offensively gifted Axewomen or the defensively sound Panthers. It's a close one to call. And if the regular season is any indication, this game will be an edge-of-your-seat nail biter.
"That's what it comes down to – which one can impose their will on the other."
When the teams first met on Nov. 18, the Axewomen narrowly escaped with a 61-58 win. On Jan. 27, the Panthers returned the favour in a 69-65 decision, where they held Anderson to just 15 points on 7-of-25 shooting.
Acadia's offence flourishes in transition, but if the Panthers can limit turnovers and keep the game at a slower-paced, half-court affair then a semifinal berth and a date with the Saint Mary's Huskies is a real possibility.
"We've played a lot of good games, but we haven't come close to playing our best for 40 minutes. If we can do that, we're going to be a tough out," Gould said.
"If we play to our capabilities, we have a chance to win the whole thing."
Quarter-final 1: (5) Acadia vs. (4) UPEI – March 3, 1 p.m.
Quarter-final 2: (6) Memorial vs. (3) Cape Breton – March 3, 3 p.m.
Semifinal 1: Winner QF1 vs. (1) Saint Mary's – March 4, 1 p.m.
Semifinal 2: Winner QF2 vs. (2) UNB – March 4, 3 p.m.
Final: Winner SF1 vs. Winner SF2 – March 5, 1 p.m.