Santa Claus must have put hot shooting under the Bears Christmas tree this year, because they put up two of the three highest scoring games of the year in the Tar Heel State. Speaking of Tar Heels, Mercer (13-2, 0-0) put up 97 points in Chapel Hill to stun North Carolina, 97-86, en route to their biggest win of the season on Dec. 28. They then beat Charlotte, 90-74, on Dec. 30 to complete the road trip and push their win streak to 10 games.
“They average 81 points and ironically I told our players before the game I said ‘there’s no way we’re going to score 81 points and we scoring 95 or 97,’” said Head Coach Susie Gardner.
Leading the way was senior Kahlia Lawrence. Over the weekend, Lawrence poured in career-highs of 39 points and 13 rebounds, including another career best 6-9 shooting beyond the arc. The Bears’ victory over North Carolina is their first ever, and was won more so on the offensive end despite Coach Gardner’s emphasis on defensive play before the game.
Even though they played from behind most of the game, the Bears did a great job finishing quarters. They put up scoring runs of 8-0 to end the first, 6-0 to end the second, tying the game at 47 and 13-2 to finish the fourth quarter. The only true lapse was the third quarter where UNC outscored Mercer 35-21 to go into the fourth up 14. They then pushed the lead to 16 with the first bucket of the fourth. Coach Gardner said her team never looked down even with the big deficit.
“We got down to start the fourth quarter and what’s been neat about this team is that even in games that we’ve gotten down, they never have that look of ‘we can’t win,’’ Gardner said.
Mercer outscored North Carolina 33-8 in the fourth quarter to close the game. Lawrence tied the game at 84 with a three at the 3:31 mark and KeKe Calloway hit a three on the next possession to give Mercer its first lead of the game. Calloway ended the game with 22 points of her own, her fourth consecutive 20-point game. Senior Sydni Means also played outstanding with 16 assists. That total is one shy of the most ever allowed by a single player in North Carolina history.
The fourth quarter defense was the fourth time that the Bears have held an opponent to single-digit scoring in the fourth quarter. Gardner said the win was a full team effort and that the upperclassmen leadership of her team contributed to the win.
“I think this whole year has been a credit to our experience,” said Gardner. “We are a mature team, we have great leadership and we have players that when plays need to be made, whether it’s an offensive play, defensive play or a big rebound it’s not just the players that we always talk about either making plays.”
The Charlotte game was closer than the final score might make it seem. Mercer only led by three points going into the fourth quarter. After a Calloway three-pointer the Bears never led by less than six points and didn’t take their first double-digit lead until 4:49 left in the game.
Scoring was very balanced with four bears in double figures including Amanda Thompson with 14 points and Rachel Selph with 13 points, two shy of her career high. Lawrence and Calloway led the way with 27 and 18 respectively and, of course, all dished out by Sydni Means with 14 assists. Means has 30 assists and only three turnovers in her last two outings. Garder appreciated having a floor general like Means on the floor.
“It’s exactly where you want a coach and a point guard to be in terms of her knowing what we should run and us having a conversation about it,” said Gardner. “When the games start I don’t have as much control so then I put the keys in Sydni’s hands and I feel at peace because she really, really is a calming force for her teammates.”
The Bears finished their non-conference schedule in the Tar Heel State and can now look ahead to conference play. Despite being back-to-back regular season champions, Coach Gardner warned that SoCon play will not be easy.
“I get more nervous and anxious for Southern Conference games than I do for non-conference games because one, we have really good coaches in our league and two, there’s no secrets about Mercer,” said Gardner. “Coaches and players in this league know what everybody on our team can and can’t do so the preparation for conference games is a whole lot more intense than the non-conference games.
- Kahlia or Kobe?
Kahlia Lawrence is really good at basketball; that cannot be overstated. In the last two weeks she’s averaged 22.8 points and 9.0 rebounds on the way to the SoCon Player of the Week title for games between Dec. 19 and Jan. 1. She finished non-conference play with 39 points and 13 boards against North Carolina and 27 points and 7 rebounds against Charlotte.
Perhaps most important, Lawrence is excelling in all phases of the game. She is not necessarily known as a passer, but has four games with at least four assists. She is averaging 5.5 rebounds and is an underrated defender. She often rotates guarding the opponent’s best player with Calloway and senior Kayla Potts. Coupled with leading the SoCon in scoring at 19.9 points per game, she also is top-10 in six other statistical categories. Mercer plays well all-around, but ultimately will go as far as Lawrence takes them this season.
- Talk About Thompson
I would be remiss in not talking about everything Amanda Thompson does for the Bears that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. Even in this article, I have not given her the true credit she deserves. She is fifth (really tied for third) in the SoCon’s rebounding at 6.7 rebounds per game and is only 5’9”. To put that into context, Keke Calloway is 5’9” and Lawrence is 5’8”. Thompson plays power forward. She is called to guard and rebound against players much larger than her and she does so well. Against North Carolina, Thompson played much of the game matched up with 6’4” Janelle Bailey.
It is not just Thompson. Alex Williams and Kayla Potts also rebound well despite being undersized, but Thompson is the gold standard when it comes to working on either end as the underdog.
- The Ball is Mine
A big key to Mercer’s success is their assist-to-turnover ratio. As of Jan. 1, they lead the SoCon with a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio and are paced by Sydni Means whose 4.0 personal assist-to-turnover ratio is fifth in the NCAA. Couple that with the junkyard dog defense that forces 19.5 turnovers per game and scores 22.5 points off turnovers per game then you have a lot of wins - just look at the 10 game win streak.
To put it simply, the Bears win because they do not turn the ball over often and they score when the other team does.
The Bears enter conference play on the road at Wofford on Jan.4 and then take on Furman in Greenville on Jan. 6. Wofford is 1-4 in their last five games and Furman is 2-3 in their last five. Furman lost to North Carolina on Jan. 10, 84-56.