ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) Three-time Southern Conference MVP Kahlia Lawrence added a tournament MVP to her resume and more importantly an NCAA Tournament berth, scoring 29 points and leading No. 25 Mercer to a 68-53 win over East Tennessee State in the championship game on Sunday.
It was the first league tournament title in their third-straight championship game for the Bears (30-2) and fittingly it came as they reached 30 wins for the first time in school history and ran their record winning streak to 27.
Veteran coach Susie Gardner, in her eighth season at Mercer, reached 20-plus wins for the fourth straight season after going 2-27 in her first season, when the Bears were in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Mercer moved to the Southern Conference for the 2014-15 season.
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The Bears returned all five starters from last year’s team that shared the conference title with Chattanooga but lost to the Mocs for the automatic bid for the second year in a row.
Alex Williams added 14 points and KeKe Calloway 11 for Mercer, whose only appearance in the NCAA Tournament was at the Division II level in 1985. Amanda Thompson had 11 rebounds to go with nine points and five steals. Lawrence was 10 of 18 from the field with three 3-pointers.
Second-seeded ETSU (20-11) was led by SoCon freshman of the year Erica Haynes-Overton with 12 points. Tianna Tarter and Sadasia Tipps added 10 points apiece.
Mercer didn’t made a basket in the final 4:44 of the first quarter and ETSU scored eight straight points. The Bears missed four shots and had two turnovers during the stretch.
Starting with a Lawrence layup, the teams swapped four baskets to open the second quarter but the second by Lawrence was a 3-pointer that put the Bears on top for good 19-16. After a score by the Bucs, Mercer went on an 11-2 run and a 3-point play by Lawrence with a second to play gave the Bears a 33-23 halftime lead.
East Tennessee State used a 7-0 run to get within six midway through the third quarter but Lawrence had six points in a 10-2 run and later added a 3-point play in the final minute. The Bears took a 54-41 lead into the fourth quarter and the advantage stayed in double figures the rest of the way.