By Thomas Becker
The UPEI Panthers had some early shooting woes, but eventually took control of the game, as they defeated the Dalhousie Tigers 69-50 to advance to the AUS semifinals.
Grace Lancaster provided a much-needed offensive spark early in the game and finished with 15 points off the bench on an efficient 5-of-11 from the field, while fellow rookie Alicia Bowering added the dagger late as she scored nine of her game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter.
Throughout the game, the Tigers focused their defensive attention on stars Lauren Rainford and Reese Baxendale, which forced UPEI to rely on its secondary scoring options. As a result, the Panthers attempted 36 three-pointers—the second most attempts this season.
"We were taking what they were giving us," said Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin. "We have great shooters on our team. We just weren't hitting the shots early on."
The Panthers were fortunate to be within a basket of the Tigers as they started the game 0-of-7 and were down 2-0 after five minutes of action.
"It wasn't really anything they (Dalhousie) did," said Baxendale, who finished with 13 points, three rebounds and three steals. "Just being in the atmosphere of the Scotiabank Centre with the different depth perception takes time getting used to."
Bowering finally ended the scoring slump with a three-pointer to kickstart the Panthers' offence. Lancaster came off the bench near the end of the quarter and scored five straight points before Baxendale connected on a triple to give her team a 14-4 advantage in the first 10 minutes.
"As a bench unit, the mindset is 'I'm coming in here with some fresh legs and energy and bring some life back into this game,' and I think we did that,'" said Lancaster, who made her AUS Championship debut.
"It was amazing," she said of the experience. "I've watched the tournament since I was 10 years old. So, going from being in the stands to now someone on the floor is really cool."
UPEI's rookies continued to step up in the second quarter, where Lancaster continued to have the hot hand as she drilled another three-pointer. Moments later, Carolina Del Santo found Bowering cutting to the basket for a pair of reverse layups to make it 24-12. They would carry a 28-17 lead at halftime.
The Tigers came out of the break storng and trimmed the deficit to 28-24 behind a 7-0 run, but Rainford responded with back-to-back layups to settle the Panthers down. Bowering then connected on her second three-pointer to extend the lead to 35-26.
After Dalhousie got to within four, Lancaster scored five of the next eight points for UPEI, as they took a 47-38 advantage into the fourth.
The Tigers had one last push and made it a four-point game again, but it was all Panthers from there. After Rainford put away a pair of free throws, Bowering caught fire from beyond the arc and connected on three straight triples to make it 65-48 before coming away with the 69-50 win.
Baxendale pointed to the team's defensive identity as the reason why they came away with the win and why it's the key to repeating as champions. In the end, they held the Tigers to just 27 per cent shooting, and leading the charge was Del Santo, who finished with 23 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.
"Most importantly, we're focused on our defence, and we'll continue to work hard on that end of the floor."
The Panthers return to the hardwood Saturday at 1 p.m. when they'll take on either the Memorial Sea-Hawks or Cape Breton Capers.
Photo Credit: Nick Pearce