By Thomas Becker
The veteran savvy of Kiera Rigby was felt in final minutes of the fourth quarter, where she scored seven of her game-high 26 points to hold off the Saint Mary's Huskies 68-64.
When her team needed points most, the fifth-year forward hustled for some easy transition baskets and was also efficient from the charity strike, where she drained key free throws to seal Friday night's win.
"You want your fifth-year players to step up like that at the end of the game," said Panthers head coach Greg Gould. "Kiera's very quick and very fast. When she gets out in transition, no one can keep up with her."
Looking to stay undefeated in 2018, the Panthers (4-5) opened the game on a 7-2 run, but was quickly countered by the Huskies (5-4), who tied it at nine. Both teams continued to go at each other, trading baskets for the majority of the quarter, as Saint Mary's carried a slim 25-23 lead.
Veteran forward Katrina Murrell led the way with 11 of her 16 points in the frame, while Rigby scored seven on the other side.
An old fashioned three-point effort by Jenna Mae Ellsworth early in the second reclaimed the lead for the Panthers 29-28. The big play seemed to energize the home team, especially on the defensive end, where they held their opponent without a field goal for nine minutes leading UPEI to a 38-33 advantage at halftime.
"There was a short sequence where I didn't think we defended as well as we would've liked," said Gould. "But we took a timeout, made some adjustments and I thought our defence dug in a little harder and started to communicate."
In that quarter, Saint Mary's made just two field goals and were held to an ice-cold 10 per cent. Rigby continued her stellar play with 12 first-half points, while Ellsworth registered seven of her nine points. The second-year point guard was also a force on the glass with a game-high 12 rebounds.
"We only gave up two offensive rebounds in the second half, which is tremendous considering we gave up 14 in the first. That to me was one of the biggest differences of the game," the coach added.
However, the Huskies responded in a big way after the break with a 15-7 run to retake the lead 48-45. Still, the Panthers were persistent in their game plan and bounced back to carry a slim 55-52 advantage into the fourth, thanks in large part to Karla Yepez's seven-point quarter. She finished with 14 off the bench.
"Karla had a great spurt in the third. Offensively, she kept us in the game."
The resilient Huskies tied it once again at 58 apiece, but when it mattered most, the Panthers relied on their best offensive player. Rigby was simply too strong, willing her team to victory with big buckets down the stretch, as UPEI prevailed 68-64.
The Panthers look for the weekend sweep when the two teams square off again on Jan. 13 at 6 p.m.