Mercer women’s basketball team is having what could be its best season under head coach Susie Gardner, if not the best season in program history.
The Bears have a 22-2 record and now have won 19 straight games. The 22 wins put the Bears three wins off their total from last season with five games remaining in the regular season.
A lot goes into what Gardner calls “one of those special, special seasons.”
Almost every player is averaging statistical career highs. Seniors Kahlia Lawrence with 19.4 point per game, and Sydni Means with 8.3 assists per game, are leading the way on offense. Gardner credits Kayla Potts and Alex Williams with being unsung heroes by coming off the bench to spark the defense.
Defense has been key to the Bears season. “Our defense is really good this year,” Gardner said. “I think collectively we've bought in.”
Gardner stresses that the team doesn’t talk about its record and the current win streak, focusing instead on actions on the court.
“We literally, as cliché as it sounds, take it one game at a time. We're not thinking about how many games we have left,” Gardner said.
“I think our biggest thing is... kind of just ignoring [the win streak] and focusing on the next game,” Lawrence said.
The goal is to win the Southern Conference tournament, earning the team a spot in the NCAA national tournament.
Once you go “you just want to go back so badly,” said Gardner, recalling her playing years at the University of Georgia.
While this season has been a great one for the Bears, the past two seasons were also strong. The team posted a 24-9 record in 2015-16 and improved last season to 25-7. Each of those seasons had Mercer walking away with the SoCon regular season title and last season the team reached the final game of the SoCon tournament.
The Bears lost in the final, costing them a berth in the NCAA tournament. The lost has stuck with the team.
“We let that game get away from us,” Gardner said. “And so the angst of that loss has stayed with me for however many days it's been.”
The team doesn’t want to get ahead of itself but knows the potential to make a run in the NCAA tournament this year is big.
“It would be tremendous for this program. Not just the team right now, but the years to come,” Lawrence said. “People would begin to recognize that this is a program that's on the come up.”
For Gardner, team chemistry is just as important to a great season as playing well.
Three years ago she had a plan to have her players spend time together off the court. She filled a jar with suggested activities and placed it in the locker room. It was the players responsibility to do an activity every week to build chemistry. Gardner noticed after a while the jar was still full and pulled Lawrence, Means and Amanda Thompson together to explain.
“Amanda, as a freshman, said, 'Coach we like each other so much that we don't want to, we just want to do things as they come natural,’” Gardner said. “They just do it on their own and that's the best way to have a team.”
“We'll go to the movies or we'll go to eat or some of us will go and hang in our teammates’ rooms,” Lawrence said. “The bonds that we have off the court definitely help with the chemistry that we have on the court.”
A prime example of those bonds is Lawrence’s favorite moment from the season when Keke Calloway had her record-breaking night, setting a SOCON record and tying the NCAA for three-pointers in a game with 12.
Gardner says she thinks the fans have noticed the maturity and growth of the players and program alike. Total home attendance in 2015-16 was 11,80, compared to 17,369 in 2016-17, according to Mercer’s website. Attendance this season is at 15,051 with three home games to go.
“To see so many people interested in what we're doing now and to see these faces come in and get excited when they see us touch the floor and play,” Lawrence said. “We love (it).”