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Reese Baxendale, left, and Jenna Mae Ellsworth are key contributors for the UPEI Panthers women’s basketball team. Jason Malloy/The Guardian
Reese Baxendale and Jenna Mae Ellsworth have formed a one-two punch that is tough to handle.
The guards have played key roles in the UPEI Panther women’s basketball team’s success in recent years. Now they are taking their game to the national stage.
“They are very different the way they play, but they are both amazing,” said teammate Karla Yepez. “But what is similar about them is their mentality – they are winners. That is why they are where they are.”
And where they are is in Ottawa for the U Sports women’s basketball championships. The team plays the Ryerson Rams today at 2 p.m. in quarter-final action.
Baxendale and Ellsworth were rivals growing up, dating back to their middle school days.
Ellsworth starred for Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown with players like Jada Yeo, Victoria Barbour and Kendra Craswell, while Baxendale and Lauren Fleming, now a Panthers' forward, were playing leading roles at Sussex Regional High School in New Brunswick. Ellsworth and Baxendale attended a Basketball Canada identification camp together in 2014 in Quebec.
Ellsworth, who is a year older than Baxendale and Fleming, was hopeful they could become teammates.
“We were already friends before she came (to UPEI), and I definitely tried to persuade her to come,” Ellsworth recalled Monday night. “I knew we would have great chemistry, and here we are now.”
Baxendale remembers her coaches telling her team about this really good player from Charlottetown. Baxendale remembers thinking Ellsworth was a superstar and then realized she might be able to play with her down the road.
“She was definitely one of the main reasons why I came to UPEI in the first place,” Baxendale explained.
They both hit the ground running and earned Atlantic University Sport (AUS) rookie of the year honours in back-to-back seasons.
“It was exciting to have a player that loved the game and loved the same style as you and comes to work with so much ambition and wants to get better every single day,” Baxendale said. “She really pushes everyone to get better. … It’s crazy how infectious it is for all the girls.”
“She’s incredible,” Ellsworth said of Baxendale. “She’s quick out there, she can shoot the shot, she can go to the basket, she never gives up, she’s got that determination and I love that about her.”
Ellsworth was the conference MVP during the regular season this year and Baxendale earned the honours at last weekend’s AUS championship in Halifax.
“They really want to win. They have a belief in themselves, each other and the team. They showed that this weekend,” said second-year head coach Matt Gamblin. “While they might get some more hardware than other people, if the other people weren’t involved, they wouldn't get the banner. … The banner requires everybody.”
Gamblin has watched Ellsworth and Baxendale improve during his two seasons at UPEI and has seen them learn to play together and off each other’s strength.
“You have to go no further than seeing Reese launching 50-foot passes to Jenna Mae to see that. The connection is there,” he said.
Or when Ellsworth drives to the paint and sees Baxendale spotting up on the weak side for an open shot.
“It’s not a secret, that they have a great friendship, too,” Yepez pointed out.
While the season is not done, the team has already made a lasting impression on the university.
The team’s AUS banner will be raised to the banner at its next home game, as it starts its title defence in 2020-21.
“It’s going to be incredible,” Ellsworth said. “It’s been a long time coming. The last time there was a banner won, my mom was the coach, so that’s pretty incredible to know (I was part of) the next banner.”
“I’m so excited for that day,” Baxendale said. “It’s been a goal since Day 1 here and it’s great to know that we finally did it.”
A look at the career statistics for Reese Baxendale and Jenna Mae Ellsworth with the UPEI Panthers.
Season GP Pts/G Reb/G A/G Stl/G
Jenna Mae Ellsworth
2016-17 18 14.1 4.9 3.3 2.8
2017-18 20 14.8 4.4 3.3 1.3
2018-19 20 16.7 4.2 2.2 1.5
2019-20 17 20.5 5.9 3.2 2.1
2017-18 20 10.2 3 1.9 1.8
2018-19 20 13.3 3.8 2.4 1.1
2019-20 20 19 4.8 3.7 1.6
“They are something special. They are not only talented, they’re strong willed, they are hard workers, they are awesome teammates. They totally deserve the awards they get.”
Teammate Karla Yepez