Hoop Pandas blow early lead in quarterfinals, settle for fifth place

While most of the basketball-watching world was glued to their televisions to watch March Madness, the Pandas Basketball team was competing in a tournament of their own.

With a panel of coaches granting them a wild-card spot in CIS finals for the second straight year, the Hoop Pandas team traveled to Fredricton last weekend as a sixth-ranked team with something to prove.

The Pandas opened the tournament on Thursday night against the 19-1 St. Mary’s Huskies, who were fresh off a victory in the AUS Finals. Having lost to the Huskies in pre-season play, the Pandas were looking to avenge a loss as well as advance to their first CIS semifinals in seven seasons.

The Pandas came out of the gates strong, opening up a 27-16 lead at half time, but the Huskies were able to rally in the second half. Rachelle Coward put her team on her back, scoring 17 of her game-high 21 points in the third and fourth quarters, including a run of eight straight points in the fourth. The final ended up being 53-52 in the Huskies’ favour.

Pandas head coach Scott Edwards said that there were a lot of points that could have gone either way.

“We were playing a (St. Mary’s) team that had returned essentially everyone from the national final two years ago,” Edwards said. “I think they executed better in the fourth quarter, and we had a rough time shooting the ball in the second half.”

Despite the heartbreaking loss, Edwards said his team regrouped quickly and was ready to go for Friday’s tilt with the Ottawa Gee-Gees. Coming into the second half, the Pandas were down by a dozen, and the deficit grew to an 19 points with 11 minutes left in the game. Despite this, the Pandas managed to orchestrate an improbable comeback, outscoring Ottawa 24-3 in the fourth quarter and winning the game 69-60.

Elle Hendershot and Megan Wickstrom each led the Pandas with 14 points, while Renee Byrne chipped in 12, seven of which came in the fourth, in the comeback victory. The Pandas made eight of their 11 shots from the field in the fourth quarter, while the Gee-Gee’s only made one shot in 16 attempts.

“I don’t know what happened in the second game to create a situation where you go from down by 19 to up by nine in 11 minutes,” Edwards said. “It was just incredible. I haven’t been a part of too many games like that, for sure.”

Matching up with their Canada West-rival Regina Cougars in the consolation final, Edwards said his team was “having fun playing with the seniors for the last time.” Those fifth-years played a huge role in the effort, as Jessilyn Fairbanks, Megan Wickstrom, and Renee Byrne combined for 48 points in a 74-73 Pandas win.

Now having a one-point win to make up for their quarterfinal loss, Edwards said that he was proud of how well his team played in their final game. With Byrne banking in a three ball to put the Pandas up by one on the last shot of the game, he said it was great to have the senior players go out on a win.

Having finished in fifth for two straight years at Canada West finals, the Pandas are ready to move forward into next season. Edwards said that his team has several promising recruits signed on for next season, and the program is in good shape. As far as the team goals going forward, Edwards the CIS tournament remained in the back of his team’s mind.

“Every program here wants and expects to go to Nationals every year,” Edwards said. “We have a few things to evaluate next spring, and I think our athletes are ready to get back to work. I trust them, I believe in them, and I know they’re ready.”

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