By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers did something no other team has done this season – beaten the Cape Breton Capers.
With a strong first half and timely plays down the stretch, the Island squad pulled out a 70-64 win Saturday night.
Both teams now have identical 7-1 records and are tied for first place with 18 points apiece.
While the win was unquestionably big, head coach Matt Gamblin is putting it in perspective, as there's plenty of ball left to play.
"It's a game not even half way through the season," he said. "So people can't jump to conclusions about long-term visions. It's just a matter of taking it day by day."
Still, it was an emotional win for all involved – fans and players alike – and it could be foreshadowing things to come.
"It was important for us to win this game and make a statement that we're a team to watch out for," said third-year forward Karla Yepez, who was named the Subway Player of the Game.
Yepez delivered a spirited performance. Not only did she score 12 points, pulled down eight rebounds and picked off three steals, but she also had the unenviable task (shared with Carolina Del Santo) of containing Cape Breton's powerful centre, Hannah Brown.
Yepez played out of position and helped Del Santo disrupt the MVP candidate's rhythm, and it worked, as Brown committed six turnovers and shot below her season average of 54.4 per cent. Brown still managed to record a 24-point, 18-rebound double-double, but it didn't come easy.
"She's [Brown] a very good player, but we have good individual defenders and despite 24 and 18, I think we did a good job on her," Gamblin said.
Jenna Mae Ellsworth got the team going with the first five points of the game to propel them to an early 8-0 advantage. After going scoreless in the first five and a half minutes, the Capers matched the Panthers point for point for the remainder of the quarter, where the home team took a 15-8 lead.
Each time the Panthers looked in charge, the pesky Capers kept the game within reach. Still, UPEI had a cushion to play with, as they went into the half up 40-27.
Both teams traded baskets in the opening minutes of the third before three pointers by Brown and Madison Munroe trimmed the deficit to 46-38. After UPEI burned a timeout, the Capers continued to feed Brown, who calmly drilled another triple to make it a six-point game. The fifth-year centre had a monster quarter scoring 12 of her 24 points to keep her team within striking distance.
They'd continue to go at each other in the final five minutes of the frame, as the Panthers nursed a 56-50 lead into the fourth.
Brown was in full attack mode again in the fourth as head coach Fabian McKenzie ran most of his offensive sets through the powerful centre. With an elbow jumper at the four minute mark, she pulled the Capers within two, 62-60.
UPEI's guards made a conscious effort to get the ball inside and on back-to-back possessions, Del Santo and Yepez converted timely lay-ins to close out the 70-64 win.
The Panthers hit the road next weekend for a double-header against the Saint Mary's Huskies.
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan