It’s been over two years since Mercer’s women’s basketball team last tasted defeat at the hands of a Southern Conference opponent.
Chattanooga knocked off the Bears by two points in a thrilling championship game on March 5, 2017 and the Bears haven’t lost since.
Last season, everything came together for a group of women who lost a pair of heart breaking finals in the same building and city the previous two seasons.
The Bears were favored heading into last year’s tournament with an undefeated conference record. Once again they’ve returned with the same undefeated record and similar expectations. In a return to Asheville for the SoCon Tournament, their goal is to repeat as champions.
“We don’t change anything. We are going to focus hard on Western Carolina,” Head Coach Susie Gardner said. “We have had a little bit of success going to Asheville.”
Sophomore Shannon Titus has enjoyed a breakout season for the Bears and will be a key to the team’s success in the tournament.
“My teammates have believed in me,” she said. “They’ve given me the confidence that I’ve needed.”
Titus believes the 37-game winning streak against SoCon opponents (including last year’s tournament) puts a target on the team’s back heading into the tournament this year.
“I think everyone is coming for us,” she said. “Everyone wants to give us our first loss...but I think we are prepared for it.”
Titus didn’t play in the last tournament run do to the the team being so deep all around. But she has morphed into one of the biggest scoring threats on the team as the season has progressed.
On Feb 21, Mercer headed into overtime against ETSU. Titus led the way during the overtime period scoring all eight of the Bears’ points to seal the game and keep the undefeated streak in tact. Titus finished with a career-high 27 points that night.
Titus has performed at her best in the moments when the Bears have had their backs against the wall. In the season finale against Wofford, with the score tied in the fourth quarter, Titus took over as she scored all 11 of her points in the final period. This led the Bears to a 65-59 win and wrapped up the perfect regular season.
She is averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds heading into the tournament. For Gardner, Titus’ quick growth has been a welcome sight.
“We knew Shannon was going to be an important part of the team,” she said. “We didn’t know how important she would be… we knew Shannon had potential.”
That potential quickly turned into production on the court. It has taken the pressure off of seniors Amanda Thompson and KeKe Calloway who generally carry the scoring load for the Bears.
Another player who emerged late in the season and will be an game-changer in the tournament is Tia Benvenuti. The freshman point guard got a late start to the season due to an injury.
Her importance to the team showed in her performance on Feb. 14 at home against UNCG, as she produced a game high nine assists. For much of the season the team lacked a true point guard which forced Calloway to play out out position according to Gardner.
Having her back from injury has allowed Gardner to finally solidify a rotation, she said.
“It was supposed to be a week and ended up being two months. As a freshman you never want to get injured,” Gardner said. “The fact that she has been able to come on the last couple months has helped.”
Gardner says that she is excited to get Asheville and credits the city and conference for putting together a great tournament for the fans and players.
“It is really, really fun to go there and I do enjoy having the men’s and women’s tournaments together,” she said. “Asheville does an outstanding job.”