Mercer women’s basketball’s season in two words? Record breaking.
The Bears have won a program-record 27 straight games. They tied a Southern Conference record of 27 straight wins.
Senior Kahlia Lawrence became the first-ever three-time conference Player of the Year. And Mercer earned its first-ever bid to the Division-I NCAA Tournament with its first-ever SoCon Championship Sunday.
The Bears (30-2, 14-0) defeated East Tennessee 68-53 behind Lawrence’s 29 points and a 13-3 run to end the second quarter. Mercer’s only other appearance in an NCAA Tournament was the 1979-80 season when the Bears played in the Division-II tournament.
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But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Bears trailed for the first time in the conference tournament after ETSU used an 8-0 run over a four-minute span at the end of the first quarter. The Bucs led 14-13 for eleven seconds before Mercer added a free throw at the end of the period.
Mercer would never let the Bucs lead again. The Bears, fueled by 11 second-quarter points from Lawrence, used a 13-3 run in the final four and a half minutes of the second period to take a 33-23 lead into halftime.
ETSU never led, but it didn’t back down. The Bucs cut Mercer’s lead to six points, 39-33, midway through the third quarter before the Bears began to pull away behind Lawrence’s hot hand.
The Bears finished the quarter on a 15-8 run, taking a 54-41 lead into the fourth quarter. The Bucs never threatened again as Mercer outscored the Bucs 14-12 in the final period.
Three who mattered
Kahlia Lawrence: The senior put the scoring load on her back, scoring 27 of her 29 points through the first three quarters. Efficient from the field, Lawrence shot 10-of-18 and chipped in four rebounds and three steals.
Amanda Thompson: The junior nearly posted a double-double, finishing with nine points and 11 rebounds; she also added five steals on an efficient 3-of-4 shooting.
Alex Williams: The forward scored a season-high 14 points, all in the second half. She also grabbed six rebounds.
Coming back for seconds: The Bears scored 17 second-chance points behind a 33-28 rebounding advantage. Mercer lost the rebounding battle to ETSU in both regular-season matchups.
Problems from downtown: ETSU was 0-of-10 from the arc in the first half and 2-of-18 for the game. First Team All-Southern Conference player Tianna Tarter was 0-of-6 from 3.
Free is good: Mercer shot well from the free throw line -- 15-of-20 -- and made eight more shots from the charity stripe than ETSU.
Call it a rout: The Bears won their three tournament games by an average of nearly 28 points per game, capping an undefeated SoCon season.
All-Team hardware: Lawrence won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, averaging 25 points per game. Amanda Thompson and Sydni Means were voted to the Second Team while KeKe Calloway and Lawrence earned First Team honors.
Third time’s a charm: The Bears lost the SoCon Championship the last two years to Chattanooga.
They said it
Head coach Susie Gardner on the last year’s loss feeding this year’s victory: “This is exactly where we wanted to be a year ago today. I know when I walked into this building when we had shooting practice Wednesday, I kind of remembered all the emotions -- all the awful emotions … Our loss last year is the reason this year was so incredible.”
Lawrence on her performance: “I was honestly just trying to do the things that I normally do. I knew that, in order for us to win this game, I had to continue to play well and provide things for my team that I knew they needed.”
Sydni Means on the the difficulty of what they have accomplished: “At this time of the year, we get to the point where everybody knows our plays … We just come into every single game knowing we have a mission. Thank God, we completed it this year.”
Gardner on defining this season: “(It was) probably beyond my wildest dreams … I never thought we’d win all these games in a row. I didn’t anticipate going through the conference undefeated … We’ve made so much history at Mercer … I’ve coached some good teams, but you just don’t have these kinds of years.”
Lawrence on the emotions at the buzzer: “We’ve worked so hard to get to this point once more. To do what we set out to do, I couldn’t control any of my emotions. I was just so happy for my team -- for us -- to complete this goal that we set.”
The Bears will wait to see what seed they receive in the women’s NCAA Tournament. The announcement will be made March 12 at 7 p.m. on ESPN.