The Mercer women’s basketball team is back in the Southern Conference title game for the fourth straight season. They’ll take on the Furman Paladians March 10 in Asheville, NC.
Here are the three keys to the title game for the Bears to walk away with a second consecutive championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
1. Use veteran leadership to their advantage
The benefit of playing in four straight title games is having five players with big game experience to lean on in pressure situations. No other team in the conference has that kind of leadership or experience.
While leadership and experience aren’t categories that show up on the stat sheet, it could prove to be the number one factor for the Bears in repeating as champions.
Mercer head coach Susie Gardner said she leans on her seniors to help her get the team ready for this moment. It would be easy for a team to become distracted by the hype surrounding a championship game.
“Well, it’s not just the games. It’s everything that surrounds the games,” she said. “We have these seniors that have, like you said, been here for four years and can kinda lead the way. And I have all the confidence in them.”
That confidence and trust will play a big part in determining the winner come Sunday.
2. Find a way to lock down Le’Jzae Davidson
In the semifinal game, the Bears put Shannon Titus on Wofford’s best scorer Chloe Wanink and it worked to perfection.
Gardner could choose to use that same strategy to try and shut down Furman guard Le’Jzae Davidson or perhaps throw one of her other key defenders like KeKe Calloway at Davidson.
Calloway is arguably the best on-ball defender on the team and often provides the pressure needed.
In the Bears’ first meeting with Furman this year, Calloway was able to pace the Paladins with 15 points but shot a poor percentage from the field. In the second meeting, she scored 26 points on 9 of 26 shooting.
The Bears were able to come away with the victory on both occasions because they were able to hold all the other players in check and forced Davidson into some bad shots.
If the Bears can force other members of the team to beat them, then they have to like their chances. If they aren’t able to slow Davidson down then the Bears have to be on upset alert.
Whoever Gardner decides to put on Davidson, she’ll have her hands full. That could be the match-up to watch.
3. Find the shooting touch early or risk upset
The last couple games have started off rough for the Mercer offense. They haven’t been able to find a groove until they found the hot hand. If they can get the ball to that person early and often it could set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Bears cannot afford to have another bad shooting game as they could find themselves in a hole they are unable to climb out of. It is also entirely possible with this particular lineup that the entire starting lineup can get hot at once as evidenced by the third quarter in the semifinal game against Wofford where they shot 11-15, though Titus carried the load for much of that quarter.
Forward Linnea Rosendal also had a solid semifinal performance and could be setting herself up to be the hero of the conference title game as she has gotten her shooting stroke back of late. Gardner was complimentary to Rosendal’s ability to hit key shots in the big moments in the semifinal game.
“I thought Linnea played great minutes for us, as well, offensively and defensively,” Gardner said. “She hit some huge shots, made some great passes and found some people in the first half, especially when the shot clock was going down.”
It will take an entire team effort to grab another conference title but the Bears look poised to do just that with the deepest team in the tournament.
The Paladins are coming in with a lot of confidence, as head coach Jackie Carson said they have nothing to lose come Sunday.
“They have five seniors that want to go out on a great note but this has been our goal all season,” Carson said. “We said the whole time we didn’t want them to lose because we try and be the one to knock them off. They haven’t been knocked off in two years. What a wonderful opportunity for us.”