UGA Basketball

Georgia avoids upset in NCAA Tournament first-round rematch with Mercer

Georgia forward Mackenzie Engram drives the lane against Mercer.
Georgia forward Mackenzie Engram drives the lane against Mercer. AP

Mercer was out for revenge. It nearly got it, too.

The 13th-seeded Bears, which lost to Georgia by 18 at home in November, took the fouth-seeded Lady Bulldogs down to the wire Saturday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA Women's Tournament. But the end result would be the same.

Georgia did just enough to hold off what would have been a major upset by beating Mercer 68-63. Georgia junior forward Caliya Robinson led the way with 23 points and 16 rebounds. Senior forward Mackenzie Engram also posted a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

"We knew Mercer was going to come out and give us our best shot," Engram said. "When we played them earlier, we beat them on their home floor. They were out for blood and I think they played awesome. They’re a great team, and they gave us a run for our money. But we pulled it out, and we kept our composure and we pulled out the win, and I’m proud of our team."

The Bears (31-3) opened the game with three early 3-pointers from guard KeKe Calloway and were hot with the mid-range jumper. But in the third quarter, Georgia (26-6) was able to open up the game and grab an 11-point lead and seemed destined to cruise to the finish. The Bears, however, slowly cut away at the deficit. Down by seven near the end of the third quarter, guard Kahlia Lawrence hoisted up a desperation 3-pointer from 40 feet away but drew a foul. Lawrence hit all three free throws and Georgia led only 52-48 entering the final period.

A raucous Mercer contingency matched the Georgia fan base in terms of crowd noise over the final 10 minutes, which turned into a back-and-forth struggle that saw the Bears climb within one point twice, with the second time being with 3:23 left to play.

But each time the Bears threatened, the Lady Bulldogs had an answer. Leading 56-55, guard Gabby Connally hit a 3-pointer with 2:56 to go. Connally would later hit two free throws to give Georgia a 63-59 advantage with 1:35 left to play.

"I didn't treat it like a big moment or a special moment," Connally said. "I know my team was happy for me because we needed any shot to go in for us. I think that's what got us started and we picked it up on the defensive end."

Before her key 3-pointer, Connally missed her previous five shots in the game. Taylor commended the freshman by staying she never allows for missed buckets get to her mentally.

"That's the good thing about Gabby, that she doesn't remember her last shot," Georgia head coach Joni Taylor said. "She's just ready to take the next one. We are constantly encouraging her to shoot the ball. She's got a pretty shot, and her ability to handle the basketball and keep the defender guessing is what allows her to get her shot off and get to the rim."

Georgia's defense stiffened over the final two minutes to prevent Mercer from taking a lead.

Lawrence led the Bears in scoring with 23 points.

With the win, the Lady Bulldogs advanced to the second round and will face Duke, which defeated Belmont 53-40 in the other first-round matchup held in Athens. The game will take place Monday evening at 6:30 p.m. at Stegeman Coliseum.

The loss ends Mercer's winning streak of 27 consecutive games.

"We have a lot of respect for (head coach) Susie (Gardner) and for Mercer," Taylor said. "We are not shocked it went down to the wire. She won 27 games in a row for a reason. They're very good."