Mercer's women's basketball team is ranked 25th in the country, won 24 straight games, has the Southern Conference Coach and Player of the Year, respectively, and owns the No. 1 seed in this week's SoCon tournament after a perfect conference regular season.
Look out NCAA Tournament, the Bears are headed your way for the first time in school history.
Uh, not so fast.
"We're all 0-0 again. Everything else is in the past," said Mercer coach Susie Gardner, fully acknowledging the cliche, "It's a one-game season."
That one game is at 11 a.m. Thursday against eighth-seeded Western Carolina (5-24) at U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina, to open the SoCon Tournament.
"We have one focus," said senior Kahlia Lawrence, who Tuesday was named the league's top player for the third straight season, a SoCon first. "We can't move toward our goal until we win the first game."
The Bears (27-2) have been agonizingly close to their first SoCon tournament championship and the NCAA berth that goes with it the past two seasons, losing to Chattanooga in the finals each time. Last March, Mercer led the Mocs by 13 points late in the third quarter before falling 61-59.
Gardner, who's in her eighth season at Mercer, has been haunted by that outcome daily for the past year.
"Toughest loss I've ever had as a coach," said Gardner, who went to the bench as a graduate assistant as soon as her playing days ended at Georgia in the mid-1980s.
Knowing the prospects for this year's team with the return of Lawrence, fellow senior Sydni Means and junior Keke Calloway in particular, Gardner attacked the season with a heightened purpose. It would be the third year the trio of all-league performers would form the foundation of a team with a solid supporting cast giving the Bears a chance to compile the magical season that's so far unfolded.
"I felt like we had a chance to make some history," said the coach, whose team hasn't lost since a 67-62 decision to Western Kentucky on Nov. 24. "I was going to leave no stone unturned and put my heart and soul into having them prepared for whatever they might face this year."
Her players have done their parts. Their maturity has made the translation from preparation to action an easy one.
Gardner reflected on past season practices when her words often met with blank stares. Huddles during game timeouts were much the same — little response to strategy or encouragement.
"It's, 'hey guys, can I get a word here?,' " she said with a chuckle. "They're already fixing the problem. This is their team. They know how they need to play and what they need to do to make things happen. Their confidence level is so high."
For Means, who tops the SoCon in assists (8.1/game), and Lawrence, who again leads the league in scoring (18.6), it's the result of the parts growing into a whole. Those wide-eyed, uncertain freshmen are now confident veterans who can nearly finish each other's sentences.
"We've gone from getting to know each other, to knowing each other to having true chemistry," said Means, a point guard. "We're at that point where we know what we're not doing well and how to fix it. Coach doesn't need to tell us."
Echoed Lawrence, a shooting guard who was the state's player of the year as a senior at Kendrick High in Columbus. "We're cohesive. We know what each other is going to do. Coach has the last word, but it's our team. We're the ones who have to make it happen. If we all play the way we know we can, we'll be where we want to be."
And that's cutting down the nets on Sunday afternoon to hang around a tournament championship trophy.
"This team deserves to experience the NCAA tournament," said Gardner, who's been there as a player and coach. "Deserving doesn't mean you're going to make it, but I'm going to do everything I can to have them prepared."
11 a.m.: Mercer (27-2) vs. W. Carolina (5-24)
1:15: Furman (17-12) vs. Samford (14-15)
3:30: E. Tennessee (18-11) vs. Wofford (10-19)
5:45: Chattanooga (17-11) vs. UNCG (11-17)
11 a.m.: Mercer/W. Carolina vs. Furman/Samford
1:15: ETSU/Wofford vs. Chattanooga/UNCG
Noon: Friday's winners