After three rugged performances and frustrating losses, what Mercer had for the defending A-Sun tournament champs was a big question.
The Bears were reeling, coming off losses of 14 points to Winthrop, 86 points to Notre Dame and 48 to Florida Gulf Coast, while Stetson cruised into town on a six-game winning streak.
The potential for another demoralizingly large margin of defeat would have been of little surprise.
Instead, Stetson needed all 40 minutes and got four free throws in the final 27 seconds to hold off Mercer 89-84 on Wednesday in women’s A-Sun basketball at the University Center.
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A loss is a loss, but this one featured one of Mercer’s best physical efforts of the season.
“Without question,” Mercer head coach Susie Gardner said. “We played 40 minutes. It’s been a long time since we played 40 minutes. I was pleased with that.”
Mercer (3-12, 1-3) trailed by 11 about seven minutes into the second half but tied it on Alex Phillips’ bucket inside six minutes later.
The Hatters (13-3, 4-0) went back up by seven on Sasha Sims’ 3-pointer, which seemed to be a punch to Mercer’s gut. But it wasn’t, in part because of Gardner’s pregame theme.
“Usually she puts plays drawn up and everything,” guard Briana Williams said. “This time, it was 1-10, how to be a good teammate. We were good teammates this game. That encouraged us, that helped us.”
Even after Shanasa Sanders scored low for an 83-75 lead, the Bears stormed back with 3-pointers by Buchanan sandwiching one by Williams.
Stetson got a huge play, however, before Buchanan’s second shot pulled the Bears to within 85-84 with 32 seconds left. On the previous trip, Sims set a high screen for Victoria McGowan, who cruised down the left side for a layup and, at that point, a four-point lead.
That defense was the problem all night.
“The bottom line is they shot 67 percent in the second half,” Gardner said. “That is the stat of the game.”
Sims was fouled on the inbounds pass after Buchanan’s second 3 and hit two free throws with 26.6 seconds left for an 87-84 lead. Mercer’s Tabitha Bradshaw lost it out of bounds with 8.3 seconds left, and McGowan sealed at the line two seconds later.
Briana Williams led Mercer with 26 points while Buchanan added 20 points.
McGowan, a three-time player of the week pick this season, dropped in 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting, with 10 rebounds, nine assists and five steals.
Cherisse Burris also had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Sims had 18 points and Sanders 14.
Both teams were fortunate to be tied at halftime.
Mercer wasn’t shooting all that well and yet stayed with the Hatters, who were even on the boards with Mercer and had a better half at the line (9-of-10 to 4-of-4).
But the Hatters got just enough of a good start to the second half to get their first lead of the game, which they spent all 20 minutes trying to keep. Outshooting Mercer by 23 percentage points in the final 20 minutes was huge.
“We fought to the very end,” said Gardner, whose team had 18 assists to only 11 turnovers. “But the bottom line is we didn’t get stops. We’d make a big basket, inch a little bit closer, but we could not get the stops on their end.”