Aggressive defence lifts Panthers past Bayside in playoff opener

Focused on finishing -The Panthers’ Mikayla Leavitt looks to make a basket with Bayside’s Haleigh Van Dyk defending during Monday’s Bay oF Quinte Conference quarterfinal. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

Mikayla Leavitt leads attack with 27 points

ADAM BRAMBURGER

STAFF WRITER

The PECI Senior Basketball Panthers brought an aggressive defensive effort Monday that left the Bayside Red Devils struggling to break out in a Bay of Quinte Conference quarterfinal.

The host Panthers got some easy points off forced mistakes on their way to a 63-45 decision in a battle of the fourth- and fifth-seeded teams to advance to play top-seeded Nicholson.

Coach Rob Garden said his team’s pursuit of the ball made a difference.

Battle for the ball – PECI Senior Panther Madalynn Snider forces a jump ball with a Bayside Red Devil. The Panthers played aggressive front-court defence all game Monday. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

“It’s our hallmark. Our pressure defence put them in some uncomfortable spots and they turned the ball over. When you’re getting that, we’re scoring off our defence. We seem to flow much easier from that into any sort of offence,” he said.

Perhaps chief among the agitators was senior guard Mikayla Leavitt. On several occasions, she was able to strip the ball right off inbounds passes. She made no mistake when she had possession either, scoring a game-high 27 points.

“Our best player stepped up,” Garden said. “She was an absolute pit bull out there. When she goes, we go. We really fed off her energy. We relied on her to carry the scoring load and as the game progressed, we saw that spread around which is something you always want to see.”

With nine players contributing on the score sheet, the Panthers got good support from Emma Lamorre, who had 11 points and from Jessie Swackhammer, who added nine. The Red Devils were led by Julianna Edgett, with 10 points, and Haleigh Van Dyk, with nine.

Garden said he felt Bayside shot the ball well, but his team picked up its game.

“It’s an encouraging time of year to peak,” he said.

With the win, the Panthers continued the school’s streak of qualifying both teams for COSSA competition. PECI also showcased a move it made to bolster its roster for that stage, dressing Grade 9 athlete Vanessa Wilton and effectively ending her junior eligibility for the year.

Garden said she is the first freshman he can recall that has been moved up to the senior loop. He explained the reasoning.

“We talked all season about, when it came time for playoffs, making sure our seniors had the best possible shot to get to OFSAA,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough with the program the junior team almost acts as a feeder system for the seniors. (Wilton) has developed over the season and adjusted to the physicality, so we gave her a chance last week in a regular season game. She did not look out of place and (Monday), she looked even more comfortable.”

Specifically, the coach said the move was to give the Panthers three guards to play in either a regional AA or AAA competition, depending on Bay of Quinte seeding. With two games in a day, Garden said having that extra guard offers a chance for some fresh legs in th

e second game.

Before the Panthers get to that point, however, they’ll have the task of defending their league championship. With Wednesday’s game (after press time) against the Crusaders at the Providence Gymnasium, PECI will have to beat the league’s top-seeded team on the road. They’re optimistic, having handed Nicholson its lone loss of the year last Tuesday, 67-48, but Garden acknowledged the Crusaders were without their top player. He also notes the Belleville school can be a tough place to play.

“We’re confident, but in that gym, your mental focus really dictates the game. We’re in a good spot and we’re wanting to come out ready to go.” The two teams that beat the Panthers this year, the St. Theresa Titans and Centre Hastings Centurions — both matching PECI’s 5-2 regular season record — were to tip off in the other semifinal. The Bay of Quinte Conference final is slated for 7 p.m. Friday at Eastside Secondary School.