The giant was almost slain. Mercer entered the Southern Conference championship game’s fourth quarter leading by 10 points, staring a bid into the NCAA Tournament squarely in the eyes.
And then the giant woke up. Chattanooga outscored Mercer 23-11 in the fourth quarter to defeat Mercer 61-59 and earn the bid Mercer was seeking. The Bears trailed by two after Chattanooga’s Jasmine Joyner drained a free throw with three seconds remaining.
Linnea Rosendal had a chance for the win, but her 3-point attempt bounced out of the rim as the buzzer sounded — no NCAA tournament appearance for Mercer.
But that doesn’t spoil the season the Bears have registered so far. Mercer currently sits at 25-6 (12-2), a long way from the 2010-11 team that won only two games. And it’s not over yet.
Nov. 13: UGA (72-64 loss)
The Bears faced in-state Georgia in only the second game of the year. It was a good measuring point early in the year. It was one of three out-of-conference losses; the other two were to Florida State and Georgia Tech.
Jan. 14: Western Carolina (59-57 win)
This contest was the closest win for Mercer in conference all season. Rachel Selph sealed the victory for the Bears with a last-second layup, and it was a much-needed victory after the team suffered its first conference loss to Chattanooga only seven days before this matchup.
Feb. 25: Samford (76-68 win)
A gritty win on the road granted Mercer its second straight regular-season conference title and kept the Bears flawless in conference play outside of the two losses to Chattanooga.
March 5: Chattanooga (61-59 loss)
Undoubtedly the biggest game of the season, Mercer simply couldn’t close the door on the Mocs. After losing by 18 and 20 points in the first two contests, the Bears had a chance to win the game that mattered most. In the near-victory, KeKe Calloway scored a career-high 25 points and tied a single-game tournament record of seven made 3-pointers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Junior Kahlia Lawrence won her second straight Southern Conference Player of the Year, averaging 18.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Her 18.3 points was good for second in the conference.
Fellow junior Sydni Means joined Lawrence on the All-Conference First Team, averaging 11.1 points, 6.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game.
The season is not yet finished for the Bears, but their 25 wins is the most in a single season since 1979-80, when Mercer went 29-6.
Mercer hasn’t just been scraping by teams all season. The Bears own a +9.8 scoring margin over opponents and lost only three conference games (all to Chattanooga).
The Bears also held advantages over their opponents in nearly every other statistical category: a better shooting percentage (.406 versus .385), a +1.5 rebounding advantage, +2.0 assist advantage, 18.0 points off turnovers versus 8.5 for opponents and 9.4 steals per game versus 5.2 for other teams.
The Bears faced off against Alabama in the first round of the WNIT in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The teams met in 2014, a game that ended in a 46-39 for Mercer but Alabama would not let that happen again. The Crimson Tide knocked off the Bears 81-57 and then beat Little Rock 55-53 to advance to the Sweet 16. Mercer’s season ends with back to back losses in postseason play but that doesn’t tarnish an overall successful season.
The core remains intact for Mercer next season. The entire starting five returns as only forward Ciarra Edwards will be graduating. Lawrence, Means and Alex Williams will be entering their senior seasons while Calloway and Amanda Thompson will be juniors. It will be the third straight season in which the team that made a run last year will be together.