Susie Gardner thought it would be easy.
The Mercer women's basketball coach played at Georgia under legendary head coach Andy Landers. She was a graduate assistant with the Lady Bulldogs from 1983-85. She became accustomed to winning a lot of games and competing for Final Four berths. When Gardner became Mercer's head coach, she figured it wouldn't take too much time to build up the Bears.
That wasn't the case.
In her first seven seasons at Mercer, Gardner started to doubt if a breakthrough would ever happen. Last season, Mercer thought it would clinch its first NCAA Tournament berth after a 23-win regular season, but fell 71-69 in the Southern Conference championship to Chattanooga.
From that moment, Gardner saw the “fire burn brighter” in herself and her players. She did everything possible to make sure her team could experience what she did in her tenure as a Lady Bulldog. That became a reality, with Mercer earning its first-ever bid to the 2018 NCAA Women's Tournament. In the first round, the Bears (30-2) will face Gardner's alma mater, Georgia (25-6).
“We knew this year was going to be our year and we weren’t going to take no for an answer,” senior Sydni Means said.
Mercer carries an extra element of excitement as It has the opportunity to get “redemption,” as guard Kahlia Lawrence termed it, against one of the two teams it lost to in the regular season. Georgia prevailed with a 72-54 win in November and the Bears have confidence they can answer back.
Gardner spoke with Landers on Thursday but the conversation centered around life rather than basketball.
But Gardner knows that if Mercer wins, Landers will take some credit. If Georgia wins, he’ll do the same.
“He’ll find some way to put himself into it,” Gardner said. “He’s got a win-win situation here.”
Above the element of Gardner returning to Athens is the opportunity for Mercer’s fan base being only 95 miles away and being able to support the team. The Bears experienced a massive crowd in Asheville, North Carolina, for the Southern Conference Tournament and the arena was packed for the selection show.
According to a Mercer spokesperson, the fans plan to fill two charter buses to make the trip to Stegeman Coliseum. Gardner also heard from Landers’ wife, Pam, that the Georgia ticket office had received plenty of purchases from Bears’ fans.
“We’re not too far from our family,” Lawrence said. “I feel like that’s going to be a really big game-changer and it’s going to feel like a home crowd.
Gardner has told her players to “act like you’ve been there” and don’t go crazy when a big basket is made. But when Mercer sees a big “NCAA” sticker on the floor Saturday afternoon, she might have similar reactions.
“This one is probably giddier in anyone in our travel party,” Gardner said. “I am so excited that these guys can finally experience what I’ve experienced. It’s been a really amazing season and I’m thankful to be in the NCAA Tournament.”