They stood side-by-side at centre court with U Sports bronze medals around their necks, and neither Reese Baxendale nor her backcourt partner Jenna Mae Ellsworth could stop smiling.
If you told them a few months ago they would be standing here, with a top-three finish in the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI)’s first national championship tourney in 22 years, they might not have believed you.
But down the stretch they were difference-makers as the sixth-seeded Panthers charged back from a 10-point deficit to defeat the Laval Rouge et Or 57-50 today in Ottawa.
Baxendale hit two huge three-pointers and Ellsworth made clutch free throws down the stretch and Laval faltered on offence and couldn’t put the game away.
“It’s not that we get comfortable being down, we just never give up,” said Panthers head coach Matt Gamblin.
“We talk a lot about being resilient throughout a game, through the ups and downs, and that’s what this group has done for the last three to four weeks — just toughness.”
UPEI jumped out to an early lead in the first quarter and led 14-12 at the break, but Laval charged back in the second, thanks in large part to the play of U Sports Defensive Player of the Year Khaleann Caron-Goudreau.
The Rouge et Or led 28-22 at halftime and held the lead in an evenly-played third quarter. But UPEI dominated the final frame on offence, outscoring Laval 24-9 and staging the latest in a series of playoff comebacks.
Baxendale had 17 points, seven rebounds and two assists. Ellsworth had 24 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“We’re best friends off and on the court,” said Baxendale. “I think that we just trust each other so much, and it translates on the court.
“So I know if I’m throwing a ball up to her, she’s catching it. And if she passes me the ball, I’m going to make it for her. We have each other’s backs for everything.”
UPEI’s late-game rally was a natural product of that trust.
“I think feed off each other’s energy, for sure,” said Ellsworth. “She hits a big shot, I’m just as excited as she is — I hit a big shot, she’s just as excited as I am.
“We feed off each other. We feed off every single teammate.”
UPEI’s formidable backcourt is likely to return for one more season together, with Ellsworth as a fifth-year senior. Baxendale has two years of eligibility left.
“The next goal is to win a gold medal,” said Ellsworth.
“You’ve just got to keep getting better, and whatever you can do, and work hard every day.”