Do you all remember my last article where I stated that it appeared as if Mercer still had some chinks in the armor and that their next two opponents would prove if they had a handle on the Southern Conference? Yeah? Well, I was wrong. I was very wrong. Mercer (20-2, 7-0) demolished the number two and number three teams in conference to garner sole possession of first place in the SoCon.
Mercer increased their program record win streak to 17 games with wins over East Tennessee State University and The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. While the scores may not indicate it, both ETSU and Chattanooga provided the Bears with a challenge, but the veteran group never lost control of either game.
The ETSU Buccaneers held serve at home and were tied with Mercer at the end of the first quarter and took a one-point lead early in the second before runs of 9-0 and 7-0 gave Mercer a 45-34 lead at halftime. Kahlia Lawrence was the high woman at half with 15 points.
From there, the Mercer lead never shrunk below seven points. All five of Mercer’s starters ended the game with double figures, headlined by 21 a piece from KeKe Calloway and Lawrence. While Lawrence was the dagger in the first half, Calloway was the closer in the second. She had 15 points in the fourth quarter including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc. Sydni Means helped round out the game with eight points and four assists in the last 10 minutes of the game. She finished with 16 points and seven assists.
Coach Gardner gave the Buccaneers their due credit postgame.
"The final score does not indicate how tough the game was. This game was a battle all night long and ETSU has a really good basketball team,” Gardner said. “I am really proud of how our players handled their pressure tonight."
Mercer fans might have been worried about the mental block that comes when women’s basketball plays Chattanooga. The Bears were 2-16 in the series prior to the contest and have lost the past two SoCon tournament titles to the Mocs. The block was nonexistent on Jan. 27 as Gardner and company snapped Chattanooga’s 53 consecutive home winning streak against SoCon opponents.
The Bears came out firing on all cylinders, outscoring the Mocs 23-5 in the first quarter. Chattanooga battled back and cut the lead to five before halftime. Lawrence, Calloway and Rachel Selph all had eight points at the break. The second half was not close as Mercer outscored the Mocs 38-26 to hold a 21 point victory. Lawrence and Calloway each finished with 17 points while Selph added 12. Means flirted with a double-double with 11 points and 9 rebounds.
In a year already filled with milestones, win number 17 was also the 134th win for Coach Gardner at Mercer. She is now the all-time winningest women’s basketball coach in the program’s history. Postgame she had nothing but praise for both her current and former coaching staffs and players.
“I want to thank Tiffany Swoffard and Rhet Wierzba for coming here when I first got the job. I also want to thank Angie Nelp for joining us in year three and for laying the foundation for the program when we weren't winning and for believing in what we were trying to build. I also want to thank Joanna Reitz for joining us in our fourth season and helping bring a strong group of recruits to this program. Of course I want to thank Tiffany [Morton], Tre [Powell] and Ben [Wierzba] for continuing our success. Obviously every coach has been a part of each win and every player who believed in what we were trying to build has played a big role,” Gardner said.
Calloway only had one three pointer, but it was all she needed to set the program record for three-pointers in a season. She now has 78 on the season, passing Mercer great Andrea Congreaves (whose name is up in the Hawkins Arena rafters)
The Bears will start over and face every conference opponent for the second time this season, starting with Furman on Feb. 1. Students can begin purchasing bus tickets to the SoCon tournament for $40. The money covers potentially three nights in Asheville, NC, at least one meal, and a ride up and back to Macon.
It is no secret that the three-headed monster of Calloway, Lawrence and Means provides the bulk of Mercer’s scoring, but the Bears have had a nice lift from the frontcourt in recent games. Both Selph and Amanda Thompson scored 10 points against ETSU and Selph also finished with 12 points against Chattanooga. Both forwards are extremely confident in catch and shoot situations from the top of the key or short corners and often find themselves at the end of a Means assist. Selph only averages 6.7 points this season, but put up double-digits in each of the last four contests including 15 against Western Carolina.
Keep Up, Kids!
Mercer has outscored its conference opponents by an average of 21 points, which leads the SoCon. They’ve won the last 15 games by at least 10 points and nine of their 17 games in the win streak have been true road games.