By Thomas Becker
With ice water in her veins, Reese Baxendale confidently stepped up to the charity stripe and drilled four straight free throws late in the game, as the UPEI Panthers held off a furious fourth quarter run by the UNB Reds in a 65-62 win.
Down 18 after three quarters, the Reds (7-9) outscored their opponent 25-10 in the final 10 minutes and managed to get within one, twice.
It was an aberration in an otherwise strong game for the Panthers (13-2).
"We lost focus and we got too comfortable," said Baxendale, who scored a game-high 26 points. "We need to bear down and finish these games strong."
While disappointed with how his team played in the fourth quarter, Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin was proud to see his team stay composed down the stretch and keep the lead throughout the game.
"Having the resilience to come back and finish means a lot too," Gamblin said. "As much as it was scrambly, they weren't defeated and they found a way to keep fighting."
Baxendale got the offence going early, scoring seven of the Panthers' first 13 points, as they led 13-4. UPEI carved up the Reds' defence with great passes at the basket, where they found most of their success. After 10 minutes of action, UPEI carried a 22-12 advantage. Baxendale was perfect from the field and led all scorers with nine after one.
Early in the second, Mikaela Dodig buried a midrange jumper to cap off a 7-4 run which trimmed the deficit to 26-19, forcing UPEI to call a timeout. Dodig finished with a team-high 16 points, while fellow starter Eva Tumwine had 14.
Up six with 3:18 to play, the Panthers went on a 7-0 run on a series of layups from Lauren Fleming, Baxendale and Lauren Rainford to push the lead to 36-23. Baxendale finished the half with five straight points, as the home team went into the break up 41-27. She had 18, while UNB's Dodig and Tumwine had six apiece.
"The first half was probably the best she's ever played," Gamblin said of his third-year guard.
In a low scoring third, the Reds cut it to as few as 12, but the Panthers, led by reserves Fleming and Lexi MacInnis, closed the quarter with three straight layups to stay in front 55-37. Fleming finished with 10 points off the bench.
"The first three quarters is how we want to play the rest of the season. And if we play like that I think we're going to be successful in the end," Baxendale said.
For a team that attempts 23 three-pointers a game, UPEI consistently attacked off the bounce, showing that when they look to go inside, they're often successful and it paid off through three quarters.
"Sometimes we shoot too many threes as a last resort, but we were trying to make a point with our cutting and driving to get to the basket."
The Reds opened the fourth with a huge 10-0 run to pull within eight. Defensively, they were just as strong, holding the Panthers scoreless for close to five minutes before Ellsworth drove hard to the basket for two of her 13 points.
Bailey Black was a spark off UNB's bench and put up seven straight points to cut the deficit to 59-56 with 2:53 remaining. They'd trim to one twice after, but each time they did, Baxendale countered with clutch free throws to close out the 65-62 win.
The Panthers have five road games left on their schedule and the first one is set for Saturday night against the tough Acadia Axewomen.
"We're going to have to bring the energy, we have to make sure our defence is tight and we have to play for four quarters," Baxendale said.
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan