Susie Gardner doesn’t like to think too much about her first two seasons as Mercer’s women’s head coach.
That’s probably a good idea.
But with the success the Bears have had the past four-plus seasons, there isn’t much reason to think about those two seasons that included just eight wins. After starting 2-27 and 6-23, Gardner’s program has continued its dramatic turnaround this season.
The Bears split the Southern Conference regular-season title for the second straight season and enter to the conference tournament Thursday.
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“Two hard years, and honestly, it’s very difficult to win a regular-season championship,” Gardner said. “That’s 14 games, and you have to play well in all 14 games. Certainly our goal is to have some success in the tournament, but I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to consistently, for the last three or four years, whatever it’s been, put a good product on the floor, have players, we think, that work really, really hard, play a fun style of basketball and do things the right way.
“I’m really pleased where the program is, not just the winning, not just the championships, but also that we have good people, we make good grades, and we try to do things the right way.”
Mercer started its climb with a 20-12 season in Gardner’s third year before a 17-14 season the next year. Since then, Mercer has won at least 20 games the past three seasons, something the program had never done since joining the NCAA Division I ranks.
A 20-15 showing was followed by a 24-9 record last year that included the regular-season split and then a loss to Chattanooga in the conference tournament game. The Bears also made their first trip to the WNIT. This season, Mercer is 23-5 and will face Wofford at 4 p.m. on Thursday.
So after losing 50 games in the first two seasons, Mercer has lost 55 in the past four-plus seasons.
“Hearing about Mercer program before I came and my first year, we had a good year but nowhere near where we’re at right now,” said junior Kahlia Lawrence, who was named the conference’s player of the year for the second straight season Tuesday. “It’s amazing. It’s a great testament to how this program has evolved, and our expectations are higher.
“How we prepare and the things we do are just different. I’m just really loving what we have here right now.”
There’s no reason to think that will slow down any time soon. Mercer has just one senior on its roster, and Lawrence and fellow junior Sydni Means will be back for another season next year. Means, the team’s point guard, was named to the all-conference first team Tuesday.
Alex Williams and Kayla Potts are both juniors and important players for this team, while there is a terrific sophomore class behind them in Amanda Thompson, Linnea Rosendal, Rachel Selph and KeKe Calloway.
“That’s a testament to Coach Gardner and how good that she’s progressed throughout the years,” Means said of the program’s improvement. “This team, being such a young team and coming out and having heart and believing in ourselves and each other, that’s huge, too. Not many believed in us last year, and we’re here this year, and we had high expectations this year.”