Mercer women’s basketball head coach Susie Gardner pointed to possibly the biggest game of the season for the perfect example of the kind of player and person Kahlia Lawrence is.
Lawrence scored the 1,000th point of her career Saturday in the middle of a heated battle with Furman, and Gardner said she didn’t even realize at the time that her standout player had reached the milestone. Lawrence’s teammates did, however, and they were congratulating Lawrence during a timeout when the sophomore said it was time to focus on the game and not the individual accomplishment.
The Bears won the game — on a Lawrence jumper with about 10 seconds left as she finished with 34 points — and with that win, claimed a share of the Southern Conference regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
“Without question, Kahlia is a big-time player. She’s made big-time shots,” Gardner said. “Everybody in the gym knew Saturday against Furman she was going to get that shot, and she hit it. She hit the shot at the buzzer over Samford (earlier in the season). She’s just a big-time player, and she’s the hardest worker we have, as well. And she’s humble on top of that. She’s exactly the kind of kid you want in your program.
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“Everybody on campus knows her. Everybody on campus loves her. Her professors love her. She’s got a bubbly personality, and she happens to be a very, gifted, talented basketball player.”
Just how gifted a player was recognized by the Southern Conference on Tuesday when Lawrence was named the conference’s Player of the Year by the media and coaches, while Gardner was named both groups’ Coach of the Year. And for the second straight year, the program has the Freshman of the Year from both groups with Linnea Rosendal winning that award a year after Lawrence did.
Lawrence finished the regular season averaging 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, and she is shooting 44.8 percent from the floor, 29.2 percent on 3-pointers and 69.3 percent on free throws. She has scored in double figures 24 times in Mercer’s 29 games, reaching 20 points 13 times and 30 points twice.
“It has been a good year. I’m surprised, then again I’m not,” Lawrence said about the Bears’ success. “I had faith in this team from the beginning. I didn’t know how far we could go or how good we would be, but I’m ecstatic, and I’m so happy for this team. Regardless of what happens next, I’m happy for this team.”
What’s next is a matchup with UNC Greensboro in the first round of the conference tournament Thursday in Asheville, North Carolina. And Lawrence will be leading the way once again for the Bears.
“Kahlia came into this year as the only returning starter, and last year, she was in an interesting spot as the only freshman starting with four seniors,” Gardner said. “And I really did not want Kahlia to feel the brunt of the load of this team. I wanted to make sure she knew, ‘Hey, I’m not trying to put everything on you.’ ”
That has paid off for Lawrence and the Bears, in general.
Gardner has coached Mercer to a 22-7 record, which is its most wins as a Division I program and marks the first time since the 1984-85 season the Bears have reached 22 wins. Mercer also won its first regular-season conference title since the TAAC co-championship in the 1991-92 season.
Mercer has won at least 20 games in three of the past four seasons. This year’s team included eight new players — seven freshmen and a junior college transfer — and Gardner had a whole new assistant coaching staff to work with.
Rosendal averaged 9.3 points per game and shot 37.3 percent on 3-pointers, hitting 59 3-pointers. She is joined on the coaches’ all-freshman team by former Mary Persons star KeKe Calloway.