“It’s indescribable. I promise, I don’t have words for you right now.”
That’s how Kahlia Lawrence explained her feelings after No. 25 Mercer Women’s Basketball pulled out a victory in the championship game of the Southern Conference tournament, their first tournament title after two agonizing defeats in the last two years.
These championship rings will feel that much sweeter on the team’s fingers as this was the year the Bears (30-2) redeemed themselves after falling short two years straight, even with regular season titles.
“As everyone knows, we blew it last year,” said SoCon Coach of the Year Susie Gardner during postgame. “And it’s been a year’s worth of trying to get these guys back and giving them a chance to feel what they’re feeling right now.”
The Bears handled the tournament in its entirety relatively easily, at least from an outside perspective. No.1 seeded Mercer smacked No. 8 seed Western Carolina, 75-44, on the tournament’s opening day and proceeded to hand No. 5 seed Samford a 37-point loss of its own, 81-44, on day number two.
It would come down to the championship game, something that has haunted the Bears for two years. This time it was ETSU who stood in the Bears way instead of Chattanooga, but the redemptive atmosphere was the same.
“I remember all the awful emotions (from last year) and I was like ‘We got to get through this’. I’m not certain if we would’ve won last year, we would have had the type of season we did this year,” Gardner said.
The game was nip-tuck the for much of the first half with neither team able to pull away. Mercer’s lead grew as large as seven in the first quarter before ETSU battled back to even the quarter at 14 a piece. The second quarter was back and forth until senior Sydni Means ignited an 11-3 run capped off by an And-One by Kahlia Lawrence to end the half with the Bears up 10.
ETSU was able to close the margin to six points with 5:32 to play in the third quarter, but Mercer’s 10-2 run pushed the lead back to double digits, and it would never see under 10 again. The team’s traded blows in the fourth, but a 14-12 quarter saw the Bears victorious with a 15-point, 68-53 win.
Ultimately, the win came down to the play of Southern Conference Player of the Year and the Southern Conference Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Kahlia Lawrence. Lawrence dropped 29 points, one shy of a SoCon championship game record, to go along with four rebounds and three steals.
“I put it all out there on the floor for my teammates. We’ve been here three times, and this was the time, this time was ours. We came out here, and we wanted to win this game. We knew we were going to win this game. I put everything that I had, my heart and my soul, and I knew my teammates would do the same thing,” Lawrence said, postgame.
Alex Williams played a pivotal role as well with 14 points and six rebounds. KeKe Calloway ended with 11 points, and Amanda Thompson put up nine points and 11 rebounds, just one point shy of a double-double.
The win was Mercer’s 27th in a row, now tied with Chattanooga (2003-2004) for the most consecutive wins ever by a SoCon team. 30 total wins is a program record. More importantly, it garnered Mercer a trip to the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been an amazing, magical year,” Gardner said. “It’s just one of those years as a coach, you just never have. We did a lot of special things this year, over and above my wildest dreams.”
No. 25 Mercer finds out who their next opponent will be next week during the NCAA selection show on March 12th at 7 a.m.
And the Award Goes To…
Several Bears collected tournament hardware. Sydni Means and Amanda Thompson were selected to the SoCon Tournament All-Second Team, while KeKe Calloway and Kahlia Lawrence were tabbed as All-First Team participants.
Thompson won the SoCon Tournament Pinnacle Award, given to the player with the highest GPA on the championship team. She has a 4.0 GPA as an engineering major.
Lawrence was awarded the Most Outstanding Player Award. She ended the tournament with 75 points in three games while shooting a scorching 60 percent from the field.
Sweep, Sweep, Sweep
Mercer not only swept the regular season with a 14-0 record, but continued that streak into the tournament with three more victories. They beat everyone in the league twice and three teams three times.