ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Mercer women's basketball head coach Susie Gardner has been in this position before.
The Mercer program has, too, but that was two decades ago and long after the Bears' best days in came in a different association.
But Mercer will get a shot to earn an NCAA Tournament berth Sunday when it faces Chattanooga in the Southern Conference Tournament title game. Sunday's game marks Mercer's second trip to a conference tournament championship game as an NCAA Division I program: The Bears lost to Florida International in the 1992-93 Trans America Athletic Conference title game.
"I'm happy to be in this situation. I'm happy for my teammates and coaches," said sophomore Kahlia Lawrence, the Southern Conference Player of the Year. "It's really exciting, but we're focused for the next game and Sunday, and we're ready to get it done."
If Mercer can get it done against Chattanooga, it will make history. The Bears have never reached the NCAA Tournament as a Division I program, although Mercer did have some strong seasons in the AIAW back in the 1970s and early 1980s, and it reached the NCAA Division II Final Four in the 1984-85 season.
"Mercer has a great history, AIAW when Sybil Blaylock played," said Gardner, who led Austin Peay to the NCAA Tournament in the 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons. "Back in the day before the NCAA, they were one of the top teams in the country. I'm just glad that we've been able to do it. I'm happy for the players. I've done a few things as a coach and a player, but these guys, they've worked so hard that I'm just happy that they get to experience the joy that they feel right now and how happy that locker room is."
Chattanooga has won the past three conference tournament titles, and it has won the tournament 11 times since 2001. The Mocs are 23-7 and feature a veteran lineup that has had plenty of success in Asheville. Senior Alicia Payne, in fact, has never lost in Asheville.
The Bears are 24-7, with the 24 wins tying for second in program history. They have played this season with three freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup.
"I don't think most people thought we'd be in the position that we are," sophomore point guard Sydni Means said. "We have one more game, and we're ready and focused, and we're excited that we have the opportunity to get to this game."
The Bears and Mocs split their two regular-season meetings with the teams winning on their home floor. Mercer ended Chattanooga's 52-game conference winning streak with a 67-44 win in January, but the Mocs gained their revenge with a 67-45 win in late February.
The two teams shared the regular-season title, with Mercer getting the No. 1 seed based on the tiebreaker (record against third-place Samford).
"It is one more game, and it is pretty dadgum exciting to even imagine; in October, there is no way (we) would have thought we'd be sitting here talking about a championship, starting three freshmen and two sophomores," Gardner said. "There is no way. It wasn't on my radar at the start of the year, but I'm thrilled for these guys."