Just under a year ago, the Bears lost a heartbreaker in the SoCon title game to Chattanooga. It was the second year in a row Mercer had come up just short.
“I remember all the emotions, the awful emotions, the angst of losing,” head coach Susie Gardner said.
Bears guard Sydni Means said last year’s championship loss against Chattanooga hurt.
“We had a mission,” the senior point guard said.
Well this year, mission accomplished.
For the first time in school history, the Mercer Bears are SoCon Tournament Champions, besting East Tennessee State 68-53 to take home the crown.
The game’s opening minutes boded well for the Bears, leading 13-8 with 3:30 remaining in the first quarter. Then, ETSU responded with an 8-1 run, to take a 14-13 lead.
It was the first time the Bears trailed in this year’s tournament– even if it was for just 10 seconds. And at the end of the first period, the game was knotted at 14.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy; they’re a good team,” senior Kahlia Lawrence said. “We just had to keep playing Mercer basketball.”
The Bears dominated the second period, outscoring the Bucs 19-9. Mercer limited them to just 4-of-13 2-point shooting and 0-of-7 from beyond the arc.
“It was critical to go into halftime with momentum, “ Gardner said. “We did a much better job of not relaxing…we were able to finish strong.”
The third quarter also belonged to the Bears, or more specifically, to SoCon Player of the Year Kahlia Lawrence.
The senior guard scored 9 of her team’s 21 points, including 4-of-5 from the free throw line, to lift the Bears to a 13 point lead as the game headed into its final 10 minutes.
The fourth quarter was mostly a back-and-forth affair. Each time the Bucs were able to cut into the Bears lead, Mercer responded.
As the game began to wind down, Mercer found themselves in familiar territory. They held late leads in both of the last two year’s SoCon title games.
This year was different. This year the Bears finished what they started.
And when the final buzzer rang, the emotions set in for the Bears. They had just won the SoCon title and clinched a birth to the NCAA Tournament. Both these accomplishments are firsts for the program.
“I can’t even describe to you all the feelings I was feeling at one time”, Lawrence said.
Lawrence finished the game with 29 points to end the tournament averaging 25 points a game. The senior guard also leaves the tournament with some serious accolades, including First Team All Tournament and the Most Outstanding Player award.
Mercer’s Keke Calloway, who scored 11 points, also finished on the tournament first team, with Means and forward Amanda Thompson earning second team honors.
In just one week’s time, the Bears will discover who they will face in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. You can tune into TBS at 6 pm (ET) to find out for yourself.
“We will approach the NCAA Tournament the same we always do,” Gardner said.
It’s worked pretty well so far. The Bears are 30-2, and riding a 27 game win streak as they enter the “Big Dance”, the NCAA Tournament.