By Thomas Becker
All season long the UPEI Panthers have been defined by their resilience. The grit and toughness they take so much pride in guided them to a 75-70 comeback win over the third-seeded Ryerson Rams and a spot in the Final 8 semifinals.
Down 56-46 after three, the Panthers refused to go down without a fight. Back-to-back threes from all-stars Reese Baxendale and Jenna Mae Ellsworth trimmed the deficit to just one with 6:05 remaining. Carolina Del Santo drained a baseline jumper 40 seconds later to give them a lead that they built on the rest of the way.
"We didn't give up for a minute out there," said Ellsworth. "We were down in the third and we just kept battling. We worked really hard for that win."
Ellsworth finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. The AUS Defensive Player of the Year was also tasked at guarding the Rams best player, Marin Scotten. While the guard put up 31 points and 10 rebounds, it took 29 shots to do so. She was also limited to just two points in the decisive quarter, while Ellsworth had nine.
"All things equal, it comes down to who wants it more," said Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin. "They decided if we lose, we're going to lose fighting and they fought until the end."
Known for their stingy defences, both teams didn't give up much in the opening half. Ryerson used their size and went inside to score six straight to take the early lead.
The back and forth affair continued before an Ellsworth hoop and harm, followed by a deep two from Baxendale pulled the Panthers ahead 13-10. Bronwyn Williams hit a soft hook shot at the buzzer as the Rams carried the 14-13 advantage into the second.
After Scotten opened the quarter with a triple, the Panthers responded with six straight points from Lauren Fleming, Del Santo and Ellsworth as they jumped in front 19-17. UPEI continued to play with confidence in the frame and opened up a 27-21 lead thanks to a 14-7 run.
A timeout seemed to fuel the Rams, who responded with a 7-0 run to pull ahead 28-27. Ellsworth added a pair of free throws as UPEI went into the break up 29-28. Scotten led all scorers with 12 points, while Ellsworth countered with 10.
The third quarter played out like a one-on-one shootout between UPEI's Lauren Rainford and Scotten. After a scoreless first half, Rainford went off for 11 straight points for the Panthers. Scotten, meanwhile, added 12 of her team's next 14 points and capped it off with a triple to give them a 46-43 edge.
"Rainford showed a lot of resilience as well going through some tough moments there in the first half," Gamblin said. "She's usually guarding the other team's best player or second best player and for her to open it up on the other end of the floor, it helped get us back in it."
After Fraser made it a six-point game, Rainford drilled another three — her fourth of the quarter — to make it a three-point game. That didn't last long, as Scotten closed out the third with five of the final seven points to push Ryerson's lead to 56-46. She had 17 points in the quarter, while Rainford had 14.
"I had a bad first half, so I just had to calm myself down at halftime and once I made the first one, my teammates kept feeding me so I just kept taking them," Rainford said.
The rookie doesn't shy away from any stage, big or small. After a strong showing in Halifax last weekend, she finished with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting (4-of-5 from three) with four rebounds and an assist in the win.
"The bigger and bigger it gets, the more people are keying in on our key players, so it just means other people have to step up and if that has to be me, that's what I'm going to do," Rainford added.
Once the Panthers took the lead midway through the fourth, Rainford scored four straight before the Rams extended the game with intentional fouls. Baxendale, as she so often does, came up big at the charity stripe where she drained 7-of-8 free throws. She finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and two assists.
Hayley Robertson did her part to keep her team in it, as she scored 11 of her 17 points in the frame. Joining her in double figures was Fraser and Williams, who scored 11 and 10 points, respectively.
"Coming into this game we had no doubts that we could beat this team," Rainford said.