By Thomas Becker
They laid their hearts out on the court and in the end, it paid off. Now the UPEI Panthers can call themselves national bronze medalists after a gutsy 57-50 comeback win over the Laval Rouge et Or.
Down by as many as 18 midway through the third quarter, the Panthers slowly whittled into the deficit. By the fourth quarter they trailed by just eight and that's where all-star Reese Baxendale took over. After Laval's Kim Letang connected on a three-pointer, Baxendale countered with back-to-back threes of her own to make it a one-point game, as she hopped to her right with a fist pump ready to the sound of the cheering crowd.
"I just wanted to win so bad," said Baxendale about her two clutch threes. "I wanted everyone to get hyped up and get excited over it."
Jenna Mae Ellsworth added two free throws moments later to give them the definitive lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"It's been a long time since we've (UPEI) been here and to think our first appearance is in a bronze medal game and winning it, it's pretty incredible," Ellsworth said.
The Panthers could've easily bowed down after things looked grim, but the heart of a championship never surrenders and that's exactly what head coach Matt Gamblin saw from his squad.
"You never give up. We talk a lot about being resilient throughout the game, through the ups and down," he said. "It's mental toughness, it's belief in each other and it's belief in what we're trying to do."
Carolina Del Santo gave the Panthers good minutes early scoring four points, before Letang drilled an elbow three to tie it up at eight apiece.
Back-to-back threes from Baxendale and Lexi MacInnis gave UPEI the lead 14-8. But the Rouge et Or scored the final four points of the quarter to trim the deficit to 14-12.
A corner triple from Frederique Beauchamp followed by three from Letang pulled Laval in front 20-16. The Panthers offence stalled in the quarter as they were held to just eight points, but an Ellsworth layup at the buzzer gave them some life. The Rouge et Or fared a bit better on that end to give them a 28-22 lead at halftime. Letang had eight at the break, while Baxendale had seven.
Laval opened the second half on an 8-0 run with Leslie Makosso scoring four of those points, as her team extended the lead 36-22.
"When we were down 14 to 16 it didn't look terrible, we were just missing shots," Gamblin said. "They just had to stay with it and they did."
Ellsworth scored six of the next eight points for the Panthers, who cut it to 41-31, forcing their opponent to regroup with a timeout.
UPEI held them scoreless for the final five minutes of the third, allowing them to inch within single digits, 41-33 before the fourth.
That's when they takeover began. The Panthers held Laval to just nine points in the frame, while they themselves had 24 fueled by the best backcourt in the nation.
Baxendale had nine of her 17 points in the fourth, where she drained 3-of-5 threes. She also added seven rebounds and two assists.
"We're best friends off and on the court," Baxendale said. "We trust each other so much and it translates on the court."
Ellsworth, meanwhile, scored 12 of her 24 points in the frame, where she also drained 8-of-9 free throws. The fourth-year guard added nine rebounds and four assists in the win.
"I think we feed off each other's energy," Ellsworth said. "When she hits a big shot, I'm just as excited as she is. And when I hit a big shot, she's just as excited as I am."
Photo Credit: Greg Mason