Playing like the all-star she is, Acadia’s Haley McDonald buried a three-pointer with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter to bring her team to within three points of UPEI.
Those were the last points the Axewomen would score, as the Panthers ended the game at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on a 16-0 run for a 78-59 win and their first AUS championship since 1998.
McDonald had 18 points for the two-time defending conference champs, appearing in their fourth consecutive final.
But UPEI’s backcourt of Reese Baxendale and Jenna Mae Ellsworth, both playing 40 minutes, combined for 49 points, with tournament MVP Baxendale making five of her 12 three-pointers to finish with 25, along with seven assists and five rebounds. Ellsworth, the conference MVP, went 24-5-5 and was cold-blooded from the foul line down the stretch.
“I thought we handled their runs very well, especially in the second half. Defence was everything and defence carried us today,” said UPEI coach Matt Gamblin, whose sideline demeanour is noticeably calm, especially in comparison to some other coaches. “I think it does help ultimately in those pressure situations. If they see a frantic leader they’re going to be frantic.”
Gamblin had a chance to be frantic when long-armed defensive stopper Lauren Rainford picked up her fourth personal with nine minutes to go in the game. Despite suggestions from his staff that she should sit, Gamblin left Rainford in the game. She scored her team’s next hoop, but three minutes later took her fifth foul.
“I trusted her,” said the coach. “You’ve got to roll the dice a little bit, and she was able to help for those three minutes.”
For Ellsworth, also the AUS top defensive player, the win has special family meaning. Three decades ago, her mother Tracy MacEachern starred on the Panthers team that won a conference title on its home court and went on to win a silver medal at nationals.
“She’s been a coach at nationals and she’s been a player at nationals,” said Ellsworth, in her fourth year. “I knew that from when I joined the Panthers. It’s incredible to know that it was that long ago, and I really wanted to do it as a player as well.”
Baxendale, Ellsworth and McDonald were joined on the tournament all-star team by Haille Nickerson of Memorial and Mikaela Dodig of UNB.
Baxendale, who had 21 points in her team’s semifinal win over UNB, is the latest in the improbably long line of good players from the small town of Sussex.
She attributes that to the dedication of the coaches there.
“I was in the gym five or six days a week and they wanted to make us better every day.”