By Monty Mosher - The Acadia Axewomen, ousted a year ago in the AUS women's basketball final by the Cape Breton Capers, made amends on Sunday by claiming their first conference title since 2012.
The Axewomen defeated the third-seeded UPEI Panthers 80-58 for the conference banner at Scotiabank Centre.
Senior forward Allie Berry had 14 points and 12 rebounds in the first half alone for the Axewomen. She finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds for championship game most valuable player.
Regular season MVP Paloma Anderson added 18 points and was named tournament MVP. Chanel Smith had 17 points and nine rebounds and was the game's top defensive player.
"We kept the feeling we had from last year since the day it happened," said Smith. "We've been thinking about that ever since. We've held that within ourselves. We never wanted to have that feeling again."
Acadia was the top seed in the tournament after an 18-2 season that saw coach Len Harvey's team vault to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time.
They were ranked third entering their contest against the Panthers at Scotiabank Centre, making them a virtual lock for the wild-card entry for next weekend's nationals in Regina.
But they made their own destiny, building a 13-point lead in the first half and answering every push from the Panthers the rest of the way.
"We were really focused this game," said Smith. "We knew what we had to do. We knew it would be our game if we did the little things right and we did that right from the jump. We won each quarter and wound up with a nice cushion going into the fourth quarter."
UPEI head coach Greg Gould said the Panthers didn't have enough left for the Axewomen on Sunday.
"Three games, three days and kids playing 40 minutes a game," he said. "It's tough. I thought our kids battled pretty hard. We came into the tournament knowing we were going to play six or seven players. Those players carried us to the final.
"We couldn't get it done today, but we played a great team. They are No. 3 in the country and they are going to represent our conference really well."
UPEI struggled to match Berry's strength in the paint in the early minutes. Acadia led 15-9 at the end of the first quarter.
Chanel Smith's three-pointer extended the lead to 24-11 before Jane McLaughlin made consecutive treys and a driving layup to pull UPEI close.
Acadia answered the run with Ellen Hatt making her second three-pointer of the half on the way to a 37-29 lead at the half.
The Axewomen got the lead back to 12 in the early minutes of the second half, but Berry went to the bench early with her fourth foul.
Smith carried some of the scoring load with an old-fashioned three-point play and a rainbow from the corner for a 52-40 lead late in the third quarter.
Hatt opened the fourth quarter with a long three for a 57-42 advantage.
Anderson added to the lead on a strong drive seconds later, but fell hard on her left elbow and required medical attention. She was able to return to the game after a few minutes.
Buckets by Hatt and Haley McDonald stretched the lead to 19. Berry scored inside a few minutes for a 74-54 spread. Hatt finished with 11.
Jenna Mae Ellsworth had 21, Kiera Rigby 16 and McLaughlin 14 in the loss. Carolina Del Santo had 16 rebounds.
Smith said it is particularly special to celebrate the title with the veteran core of Anderson, Berry and Katie Ross.
"We've been though so much together. We've literally come from the bottom. Now we're here at the top. It means so much to all of us.
UPEI made it to the final with wins over Memorial and Cape Breton. Acadia ousted Memorial in its semifinal to advance.
Anderson, Berry, McDonald, Ellsworth and UPEI's Reese Baxendale made the all-star team.