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On a Sunday afternoon last March, the UPEI Panthers accomplished something very special.
They won a bronze medal at the U Sports women’s basketball championship in Ottawa. It was the program’s second medal at nationals and first since the Panthers earned silver in 1989.
As part of Sport P.E.I.’s annual awards program, they have been recognized for the accomplishment by being named the CBC team of the year.
“It is a memorable moment in all of our lives,” said guard Jenna Mae Ellsworth, who was named the country’s top player and one of the top 100 to ever play university women’s hoops in Canada. “I think we'll all remember that moment at nationals. … Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to go back in the future.”
Road to nationals
The UPEI Panthers went 17-3 to finish first in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) regular season. Here's a look at their playoff games.
UPEI 73 UNB 60
UPEI 78 Acadia 59
UPEI 75 Ryerson 70
Brock 69 UPEI 55
UPEI 57 Laval 50
As much as the end result stands out, there were numerous times during the season that made the run that much more remarkable.
In early November, Ellsworth and Carolina Del Santo, another key fourth-year player, both went down with injuries. Others stepped up in their absence and the team persevered. There was a sigh of relief when it was determined both would be back in the second semester.
They went to St. John’s, N.L., – never an easy place to win – to finish the regular season and came away with two convincing victories. They kept rolling the following weekend at the Atlantic University Sport championship in Halifax, reaching the final where they would meet a familiar foe – the Acadia Axewomen, who had eliminated the Panthers from the playoffs the previous three seasons.
This year would be different.
The Panthers won 78-59, finishing on a 16-0 run, and third-year guard Reese Baxendale was named the tournament MVP.
They won twice at the nationals in Ottawa, but it wasn’t easy.
The sixth-seeded Panthers trailed No. 3 Ryerson by 10 points heading to the fourth quarter only to outscore the Rams 23-2 in the first 8 ½ minutes of the final frame to secure victory.
“The team was super tough,” said coach Matt Gamblin. “Most of those big wins either came from us coming back from double-digit deficits or us finishing on big time runs.”
They trailed Laval by as many as 18 points in the third quarter of the bronze-medal game. They cut the deficit to 10 early in the fourth and wouldn’t be denied.
Baxendale hit a three, Ellsworth stole the ball on the ensuing possession and found Baxendale for another trey to cut the deficit to one. Ellsworth tied it at the free-throw line and then put UPEI ahead for good with a jumper with 1:49 to play.
“She’s certainly your leader and it all flowed from her in terms of the culture of the team, but a (there was a) lot of strong personalities, a lot of kids that just wanted to win,” said Bob Gray, who has been involved with the program for decades and is the team’s academic advisor. “And they wouldn’t quit.”
The Panthers returned home Monday, March 9, and three days later the sports world changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We got home and then … the world shut down,” Gamblin said. “We feel pretty lucky.”
Sport P.E.I. recently announced the finalists in some categories and the winners in others. The awards ceremony is set for Feb. 24.
“It definitely brings back some good memories, considering we haven’t played a game in a very long time,” Ellsworth said, noting the bronze-medal match was their last contest. “To remember that year we had is awesome.”
The previous 10 winners of the team of the year award:
2019 P.E.I. under-16 Wave, ringette
2018 P.E.I. Hunter’s Ale House Mudmen, rugby
2017 Holland College Hurricanes men’s soccer
2016 Holland College Hurricanes women’s basketball
2015 Charlottetown Gaudet’s Auto Body Islanders, baseball
2014 UPEI Panthers men’s soccer
2013 Holland College Hurricanes men’s basketball
2012 UPEI Panthers women’s hockey
2011 Holland College Hurricanes men’s soccer
2010 Kathy O’Rourke curling rink
The team returned to the court this week after its Christmas break, and players spoke about the award during Tuesday’s practice.
“It was nice to see everybody’s reaction in person,” Ellsworth said. “It’s definitely a huge honour for us to be recognized by Sport P.E.I.”
UPEI recently announced 87 of its student-athletes were named academic all-Canadians, meaning they achieved an academic standing of 80 per cent or better.
“To have nine of the 13 players (on our team) be academic all-Canadians is just a remarkable achievement by them,” Gray said.
Despite a hectic second semester last year with the team’s schedule and the players moving to virtual learning in mid-March, the team’s grade point average (GPA) for the semester was 3.7.
“They are just a remarkable group of young women – once in a lifetime. It’s a shame that everything is cancelled this year,” Gray said.
The team could have essentially returned its lineup for 2020-21 and take another crack at a nationals, but the pandemic wiped out the season.
The Panthers aren’t taking the year off.
They are practising.
They are in the weight room.
They want to get better.
That’s what champions do.
Need to know
What – 2020 Sport PEI Awards, the 47th annual awards ceremony recognizing the top amateur athletes in the province for their 2020 success.
When – Feb. 24.
Where – Confederation Centre of the Arts.
Tickets – Tickets are $20 and available by calling Sport P.E.I. at 902-368-4110.
Who – Winners in some of the categories have already been determined. They are:
ADL administrator of the year – Beryl MacMillan (hockey/ringette)
P.E.I. Mutual Insurance official of the year – Tanner Doiron (hockey)
CBC team of the year – UPEI women's basketball team
P.E.I. Mutual Insurance coach of the year – Billy McGuigan (Hockey)
Here’s a look at the finalists for the 2020 Sport P.E.I. awards:
ADL masters athlete of the year
• Rob Binns (speed skate)
• Troy Coffin (baseball)
• John Van Ekris (ultra-running)
Synergy Fitness & Nutrition intercollegiate male athlete of the year
• Stephen Anderson (hockey)
• Kameron Kielly (hockey)
• Ligrit Sadiku (wrestling)
Synergy Fitness & Nutrition intercollegiate female athlete of the year
• Ava Boutilier (hockey)
• Jenna Mae Ellsworth (basketball)
• Hannah Taylor (wrestling)
DP Murphy Hotels junior male athlete of the year
• Brodie MacArthur (hockey)
• Mikey Perry (judo)
• Jordan Spence (hockey)
DP Murphy Hotels junior female athlete of the year
• Jenna Larter (speed skate)
• Lauren Lenentine (curling)
• Alexa McQuaid (swimming)
Cox & Palmer senior male athlete of the year
• Mark Arendz (para biathlon and cross-country ski)
• Brett Gallant (curling)
• Ligrit Sadiku (wrestling)
Cox & Palmer senior female athlete of the year
• Suzanne Birt (curling)
• Stevie Murphy (equestrian)
• Hannah Taylor (wrestling)