By Thomas Becker
The coveted first-round bye is in striking distance after the UPEI Panthers defeated the Acadia Axewomen 76-64.
The first-place Panthers captured the win the best way they know how – with their defence. The Axewomen, who lead the league in scoring with 80 points per game, couldn't handle the UPEI's pressure and often times forced up contested shots. MVP candidate Haley McDonald scored a game-high 24 points, but took 27 shots to do so.
On the other end, UPEI's field goal percentage steadily climbed and leading the charge was fifth-year forward Jane McLaughlin, who recorded a double-double with 17 points (3-of-4 from deep) and 10 rebounds.
After the game, she reflected on her time with UPEI and how this year could be a year of firsts for her, if the Panther continue to play at this level – which could include a perfect home record, a first-round bye and more.
"I'm trying not to think of playoffs too much, but we want to solidify that bye." McLaughlin said. "It'slike all these things we've never had that we're really fighting for."
With a win on Saturday, a lot of those goals could become reality.
"More than anything, we think about it as being our last home game," said Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin. "We're not looking two weeks ahead. We're just saying it's our last home game of the year. It's senior day, they don't need any more motivation than that."
In a battle for playoff seeding, both teams came out hard and traded jabs. In the first quarter alone, there were nine lead changes, as the Panthers carried a slim 19-18 advantage into the second.
After Acadia scored the first four points of the quarter, UPEI countered with an 11-0 run to push the lead to 30-22.
The home team continued to play with confidence and looked to get easy baskets in the paint at every opportunity. Each basket they converted was a layup with free throws peppered in-between. McLaughlin's triple at the 3:30 mark broke that cycle and extended their lead to 37-26. They were ahead 41-32 at halftime.
It was a slow start for both teams coming out of the third. But at the 6:31 mark, the Axewomen went on a furious 13-3 run that lasted almost five minutes to pull ahead 49-47.
Down for the first time since the first quarter, the backcourt duo of Jenna Mae Ellsworth and Reese Baxendale went to work. Behind their guards, UPEI closed out the third on 10-2 run, capped off by a huge Baxendale triple at the buzzer to go into the final frame ahead 57-51. They each finished with 12 points, five rebounds and three assists.
"We both like to rise to the occasion in big games," Baxendale said. "The third quarter was kind of a lull for us, but we finished strong and carried that momentum into the fourth."
UPEI's bench continued to prove their worth as well. Lauren Fleming led the reserves with an efficient 10 points, as they outscored Acadia's bench 18-15.
The Panthers will look for that first-round bye and weekend sweep on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan