Mercer opened up the new season with a 74-47 win over LaGrange Tuesday as the Bears got off to a good start in their quest to return to the NCAA tournament.
The Bears were in control from the opening tip as they trailed for just 15 seconds all night. Mercer opened up a 15-6 lead in the opening quarter behind a hot start from freshman guard Jordan McLaughlin, who scored six points in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Shannon Titus, the only returning starter from last season, got heated up as she scored 8 of her game-high 14 points. Freshman forward, PJ Wintermyer, finished with 14 behind a hot shooting night from behind the 3-point line.
The Bears entered the fourth quarter with a 54-36 lead over LaGrange. Mercer would extend that lead behind Wintermyer and Titus as the team finished on a 13-0 run to end the game.
Before the game, the Bears also celebrated their 2018-2019 season with the return of three star players from last season and unveiled three new banners in Hawkins arena. Rachel Selph, Amanda Thompson and Ally Welch each did the honor of unveiling the banners for the NCAA tournament appearance and the regular season and tournament titles for the Southern Conference.
Here are three takeaways from the season opener as the Bears look to continue their recent dominance with a bunch of fresh faces.
1. McLaughlin looks like a special talent.
The freshman guard earned the start on opening night and made the most of it. She chipped in with four rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. But it was the things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet that made a difference.
She was able to be a primary ball-handler on the court. It is something the Bears struggled to find last season until late in the year. If McLaughlin can become an additional player maker with the ball in her hands alongside point guard Tia Benvenuti, then they will be set up to be successful.
“That is why we signed her. We just need some spunk at that position,” Mercer head coach Susie Gardner said. “We went after her for a reason and tonight she played pretty well.”
The other thing that stood out was her ability to play defense. Even when it didn’t lead to a steal, she was forcing tough shots and bad passes. McLaughlin could have some growing pains as a freshman adjusting to the college level but she didn’t show it on opening night.
2. Finding the additional scorers to help Titus
Losing some of the team’s best scorers in KeKe Calloway and Amanda Thompson added a big worry coming into the season. Wintermyer and McLaughlin filled that role well as they combined for 24 points and Jill Harris, the third freshman, was able to contribute on defense with three steals to get others out on the break.
“I am still trying to figure out what is going to work best,” Gardner said. “The three freshman played… really, really well for their first games.”
Wintermyer has the makings of a sharpshooter who moves well even as one of the team’s tallest players. Four Bears finished with over 10 points for the game and another pair had at least six. McLaughlin said she enjoyed being able to get going early on offense.
“It was actually really fun. It was very exciting,” McLaughlin said. “Once my first shot went in, it was like everything just dropped off my shoulder and it was like a regular game.”
Spreading the scoring load out should help take the pressure off of Titus.
“We had players in the past that we counted on to score 20 or even 30. I am not expecting Shannon to do that,” Gardner said. “I think because we have so many unanswered questions, we are going to get points anyhow we can manufacture them.”
3. Defense to set up offense
The Bears threw the kitchen sink at LaGrange early on as they used the full-court press to lead to errant passes and steals. Mercer was also able to change it up into zone and man-to-man as they stifled the LaGrange offense for most of the night with constant pressure.
“I think that was just our game plan, just to tighten up on them,” Titus said. “’Cause we knew our best plays are when we get out and run.”
The Bears finished with 19 steals, one more than the number they had in the NCAA tournament game against Iowa, which was last year’s best on the season. Gardner said the competition level is a bit different but that the team will look to get points in transition.
“It was a little bit different competition,” Gardner said. “We feel like we might be a little bit better running team and that is what we need to do.”
As the Bears get into tougher games on their schedule it will be imperative that their defense continues to provide this type of pressure.
With new players still learning to fit in on offense, the Bears defense could be leaned on to keep them in the games with tougher opponents like Western Kentucky on Friday.