Two years ago, the Mercer women’s basketball team entered the season with all freshmen and sophomores, coming off a 20-15 season the previous year. Few projected success for the team in 2015-16.
But the Bears exceeded those expectations with a 24-9 overall record, though ultimately losing to Chattanooga in the conference championship.
The Bears took it another step last year, winning a program-record 25 games. But once again, they fell to the Mocs in the conference championship.
Entering this season, a team filled with juniors and seniors has reversed the roles and sits atop the preseason conference rankings. The Bears, who kick off the season Friday against the UCF Knights in Orlando, Florida —were voted to win the conference in both the coaches and media polls and are ranked No. 15 in the Mid-Major Preseason Poll.
“It’s easy to say you don’t really think about it and it’s not a big deal, but we obviously do think about it,” said senior Kahlia Lawrence. “It’s something we know is there.”
Lawrence leads the charge as a two-time reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year. She was also voted as the SoCon Preseason Player of the Year this season after averaging 18 points per game last year.
Head coach Susie Gardner, entering her eighth year at Mercer, said the high expectations are what the team works for day-in, day-out.
“This is why we come to work every day as coaches — to try to put ourselves and put our players in position to feel that, for lack of a better word, pressure to succeed,” Gardner said. “It’s a good place to be in. It’s gratifying as the coach here at Mercer that we’re hopefully doing things the right way.”
It has worked the past two seasons. Even though the Bears have not won the conference tournament, they have won the regular-season conference title the last two years. In order to repeat that success with these high expectations, Lawrence said the team needs to approach this season just like it has previous seasons.
“That’s the best mentality we can have: Treat every day like it was back when we weren’t this big dog in the conference,” Lawrence said. “I think that’s really good for us because it keeps us hungry and keeps us wanting to do better than we did before.”
And that’s the key for the Bears this year: Doing better than before and getting over that final hump, a conference tournament victory. Senior guard Sydni Means said a conference title is the team’s ultimate goal, although the players focus on staying in the moment and winning games now.
Means was named to the 2018 Nancy Lieberman Award Watch List on Monday after recording 10.9 points and 6.8 assists per game last season. Her 3.54 assist-to-turnover ratio last year was third best in the NCAA.
Means said finishing games will be the key to getting over the hump this year.
“We struggle a lot in the fourth quarter maintaining scoring points as well as not allowing the other team to score points,” Means said. “The end, the second half especially, is very important for us. Just trying to keep our focus for four quarters and not waver off at any point.”
The Bears return their nine top leading scorers and 10 top leading rebounders from last season, graduating only one senior. Lawrence said having that experience will help this season, especially the experience of learning from close losses.
“I learned that experience does help,” Lawrence said. “We lost to a Chattanooga team that had been there many a times before us. The opportunity to be there before will just help us if we’re able to make it there again this year.”
Mercer will square off against 15 non-conference opponents before conference season starts Jan. 4. Gardner said it is the toughest non-conference schedule the team has faced since she has been in Macon; it features outings against North Carolina, Georgia, Davidson and Central Florida.
Gardner said winning in November and December matters, but her goal is to prepare the team for January and February — conference season.
But that doesn’t mean she’s not excited to kick off the season Friday at Central Florida.
“I’ve done this so long you’d think I’d be used to it, but I’ve actually been very, very nervous all week,” Gardner said. “As I watch film of Central Florida, I feel myself getting the butterflies. I guess that’s a good sign. You can feel that it’s coming, and I’m anxious for it.”