Susie Gardner and Mercer turn focus to WNIT

Video: Susie Gardner discusses the Southern Conference Tournament

Mercer women's basketball team will play in the WNIT after winning the Southern Conference regular-season title.
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Mercer women's basketball team will play in the WNIT after winning the Southern Conference regular-season title.

The wild swing of emotions was evident for the Mercer women's basketball team last week in Asheville, North Carolina.

There were two terrific wins and the excitement of reaching the Southern Conference Tournament championship game followed by the disappointment of losing to Chattanooga with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line. Even in the title game, the emotions were all over the place as the Bears trailed for three quarters before a furious rally allowed them to take a one-point lead with four minutes left only to have the Mocs rebound to pull out the win.

On the ride home, it all hit Mercer head coach Susie Gardner at once just how close the Bears were to earning the program's first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.

"I didn't cry after the game, but after the bus got quiet and everybody went to sleep, I think about an hour into the trip, it really hit me how close we were to going to the NCAA Tournament. I got a little emotional by myself," Gardner said. "But we're going to bounce back and play in the WNIT and still get to practice and still get to prepare."

The WNIT is next for the Bears based on a share of the regular-season conference title with Chattanooga, and they will find out Monday who they play and where. Mercer (24-8) doesn't have any seniors on the roster, so more opportunities to practice and play should help the young roster continue to grow.

The Bears have played in the WBI twice under Gardner.

"It's not the NCAA, obviously, but I think it is a step in the right direction," Gardner said. "We have played in the WBI twice, so it's a little bit higher step up, I guess, to the NCAA.

"And to continue to play, we have no idea who we're going to play, but we could play a major opponent on an away court. So that's exciting.

"It will be Selection Monday, we'll find out after the women's selection show, but I think it will be exciting. I think our kids will understand postseason play is our goal every year."

That goal was reached this year after a strong regular season and a terrific performance in Asheville, even with the championship loss.

"The whole week was just an adrenaline rush. I was telling my staff (Tuesday), we had a staff meeting. I said, 'you know, the week, it couldn't have been any better, minus not winning the championship game,' " Gardner said. "But it just felt like we were jelling, we were preparing really well. Everything went great. Everybody was having a good time.

"Obviously, getting to the championship game was great. The fans were off the chart amazing."