By Thomas Becker
It was a historic Saturday night for the UPEI Panthers, who captured a perfect 10-0 home record and clinched a first-round bye in the AUS Championships after sweeping the Acadia Axewomen 77-65.
Jenna Mae Ellsworth led the way with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists, while teammates Karla Yepez (15 points), Reese Baxendale (12 points), Annabelle Charron (11 points) and Kimeshia Henry (11 points) all hit double figures.
"It's really big," Ellsworth said of the perfect home record. "You want to defend your home court every time you play here."
Historic win aside, Ellsworth and the Panthers aren't satisfied just yet. There's still a lot to play for with the ultimate goal in sight.
"We have to keep moving forward and playing hard," she said. "Playoffs are coming up, doesn't matter if you go 10-0, we still have to win those playoff games."
The bye, meanwhile, is a huge accomplishment with championship implications. Last season, UPEI went into the tournament without one and by the time they reached the finals (there third game in three days) they ran out of gas. This year, if they make it all the way, they'll have to play just two games.
"You don't want to be the one coming into that final game having played two games before that," Ellsworth said. "It's tough. We tried that last year and it didn't work."
Earning that bye didn't come easy, as the Axewomen did everything in their power to deny them. With the game tied at five, Acadia went on a short 5-0 spurt – a Haley McDonald layup, followed by an Ellen Hatt three – to double the Panthers 10-5.
That was just the beginning for McDonald, who scored 14 of her game-high 23 points in the first, including six consecutive to close out the quarter, as the Axewomen jumped on the Panthers 24-14.
But UPEI's bench provided a major lift to open the second. Charron, who sat out the night before, came in and single-handedly willed her team back. After depositing a triple, the second-year guard converted an old fashioned three-point play to pull the Panthers within two, 26-24.
Layups by Ellsworth and Charron moments later trimmed it to just one, forcing Acadia to call a timeout. After Lanae Adams drilled a three, Charron countered yet again with a corner triple to keep UPEI close. She scored all 11 of her points in that crucial stretch.
"I knew it was an important game, so I had to make my shots," Charron said. "When I get a chance to play, I try to play my best."
Each time the Axewomen tried to extend their lead, the Panthers clawed back. With 1:52 remaining in the half, Baxendale split a pair of free throws to tie it at 36 apiece.
After Acadia opened the second half on a 6-0 spurt, the home team settled down and countered with a huge 13-0 run. Yepez capped off the impressive stretch with five straight points to storm ahead 49-42.
Defensively, UPEI was equally dominant. Following a field goal at the 7:45 mark, the Axewomen were held scoreless for almost seven minutes. Julie Campbell closed out the quarter with a corner trey, as they carried a 57-46 lead into the fourth.
Henry went to work in the final frame and helped the Panthers open up a 19-point advantage. She scored nine of the 20 points scored in the quarter, as they came away with the 77-65 win.
UPEI hits the road for their final two regular season games, where they'll take on Cape Breton and St. FX.
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan