Sports

Mercer falls short of first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance

By DANIEL SHIRLEY dshirley@macon.com

Video: Susie Gardner talks about loss to Chattanooga

Mercer drops a 65-57 decision to Chattanooga in the Southern Conference Tournament championship.
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Mercer drops a 65-57 decision to Chattanooga in the Southern Conference Tournament championship.

Chattanooga had won three straight Southern Conference Tournament titles entering Sunday’s showdown with Mercer.

And for three quarters, the Mocs looked like their usual dominant selves. But then the young Bears fought back and gave the Mocs all they could handle in the fourth quarter.

In the end, however, the Mocs had too much firepower and pulled out a 65-57 win for another tournament title.

The Mocs improve to 24-7 and are again headed to the NCAA Tournament. The Bears fall to 24-8, but they will be headed to the Women’s NIT after sharing the conference’s regular-season title with the Mocs.

THREE WHO MATTERED

Sydni Means: The Bears’ sophomore point guard scored nine points in the fourth quarter after having just six through the first three quarters. She shot 7-of-15 from the floor. She was named to the all-tournament first team.

KeKe Calloway: The freshman and Mary Persons product kept the Bears in the game early when not much else was working offensively, scoring 13 of her 18 points in the first half. She had all four of the Bears’ 3-pointers. She was named to the all-tournament first team.

Kahlia Lawrence: The Southern Conference Player of the Year battled foul trouble for the second game in the tournament and finished with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting. She was named to the all-tournament second team.

TURNING POINT

Mercer trailed 51-40, but the Bears went on a 14-2 run to open the fourth quarter to take their first lead of the game at 54-53. But Chattanooga regained its composure in the final four minutes and responded with nine straight points to take back control of the contest.

OBSERVATIONS

Strong start: Chattanooga hit four of its seven 3-pointers in the opening minutes, jumping out to a 19-7 lead with 4:05 left in the first quarter, and the Bears were forced to play catch-up from there.

More big 3s: Mercer got to within 23-19 early in the second quarter, but Chattanooga got 3s on its next two trips from Alicia Payne and Aryanna Gilbert to stretch its lead back to eight at 29-21.

Free-throw edge: Chattanooga shot 25 free throws to just 14 for Mercer. The Mocs made 16 of their free throws, while the Bears made seven.

WORTH MENTIONING

Strong off the bench: Led by Calloway, the Bears outscored the Mocs 28-0 in bench points.

THEY SAID IT

Mercer head coach Susie Gardner on the loss: “We’ve got a young team. I haven’t said that. I have stayed away from saying that we have a young team. But we do. We got down 13, and we could have lost by 20, and we ended up getting the lead and made it close and made it exciting, so I’m proud of our players, very proud of our team.”

Gardner on the 14-2 run to get back in the game: “We had our halfcourt press that worked. It’s one of those presses, however, that you don’t run the whole game. It’s a very, very fatiguing press. You typically run it two or three possessions to try to get a little momentum. … Our halfcourt trap has worked for us this year, and it got us back in the game.”

Means on the comeback: “I think it says that, not only this game, but we’ve gotten down in games before, and we just fight. We’re a team that fights, and we have heart, and when things aren’t going our way, we keep pushing. We don’t throw in the towel. We like to keep fighting.”

Lawrence on her foul trouble: “Obviously, I didn’t want to be in foul trouble, that’s never the case. That being said, it happened, and it didn’t bother me necessarily because I have faith in my teammates. We’re not just a one-player team. We have a good team, and I’m surrounded by good players.”

Gardner on Calloway’s strong game: “She had a really good game on Thursday and not-so-good game on Friday. KeKe is kind of an up-and-down player, and I’m never really sure which KeKe is going to show up, in all honesty. It’s always good for KeKe when she hits her first shot, and she helped us a lot (Sunday) with her shooting, for sure.”

Gardner on Chattanooga’s strong start: “The time between the first and second quarter, I said, ‘We’re not playing bad defense. They’re just hitting almost every shot.’ Hitting 3s is contagious, and it became contagious for them. The first quarter, it really, really hurt us because I thought we were playing pretty good defense that quarter.”

Means on watching Chattanooga’s postgame celebration: “It’s never fun to be a runner-up in anything, but it’s a learning curve for us. Last year, it didn’t mean as much to me that we didn’t make it to the championship game. This year, we made it, and seeing them get the shirts, get the hats, cut down the nets, that’s never fun. And I’m already ready for what’s next. I’m ready to get back on the court with these ladies. I love playing with them.”

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