|Taylor Petty had a season-high 22 points in Furman's 66-63 loss to Mercer|
in the SoCon women's championship Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman
It's the 34th consecutive win over SoCon competition for Mercer (25-7), which hasn't lost to a league foe since Chattanooga in the 2017 championship game. The season will continue for Furman (19-13), which earned an automatic bid to the Women's NIT.
"This is a hard one," Furman coach Jackie Carson said. "I'm just so unbelievably proud of this team, their fight and resiliency. A lot of people counted us out, but we have 15 players, coaches and staff that never did."
Of those 34 wins for the Bears, not many could've been more hard earned than Sunday's classic of a final. The teams swapped the lead 10 times and had two ties, but unfortunately for Furman, not three. After hitting a 3-pointer early in the first quarter, Paladin leading scorer Le'Jzae Davidson couldn't get another to fall. After missing one with 20 seconds left to play, Furman was forced to foul with 15 seconds left.
Mercer's Amanda Thompson missed both free throws and Furman's Tierra Hodges grabbed the second miss and called timeout. After Davidson's 3-point attempt was partially blocked by Thompson with five seconds left, there was a scramble for the ball. Milica Manojlovic came out with it and fired to an open Davidson in the corner. Her shot looked on target as the final horn sounded, but it rimmed off no good and the Bears erupted in celebration.
"I thought every single one of them was going to go in because I had no doubt that we were going to win this game," Carson said. "The last one looked like it was online and Le'Jzae is used to hitting that shot over and over again. It just didn't fall. ... She had a tough day, but she gave us a chance."
Half of those 10 lead changes came in the first quarter, which ended with a Taylor Petty 3-pointer that gave Furman a 17-14 lead. KeKe Calloway powered the Bears back in front as she scored 15 of her game-high 30 points in the second quarter to help Mercer take a 35-31 lead into halftime.
After a sluggish opening two minutes of the second half, Carson called timeout. The Paladins responded, outscoring the Bears 16-7 to carry a 47-44 lead into the fourth.
Hodges' putback gave Furman its biggest lead at 52-46 with 8:47 left. After Hodges' jumper with 8:03 left gave the Paladins a 54-49 lead, they didn't hit another field goal for more than six minutes. A Hodges jumper with 1:27 left cut Mercer's lead to 62-60. The Bears' Shannon Titus answered with a jumper with 1:05 left before Petty hit three free throws with 48 seconds left to slice the lead to one. Mercer's Rachel Selph powered her way in for a layup with 29 seconds left for the final score of the game.
"Their kids are used to rising to the occasion at the end of a game. ... That's a credit to (Mercer coach) Susie (Gardner) and what they've built. ... They've got five seniors and are just unbelievably experienced," Carson said. "We couldn't get Titus off the boards. I thought that was a big key."
The rebounding battle was even at 36, but Mercer controlled it in the second half. Furman had a 16-6 advantage on the boards early in the second quarter. The Paladins had just eight turnovers, but Mercer had only six. The Bears also had 10 blocks and five steals.
Petty hit 5-of-8 3-pointers and finished with a season-high 22 points to lead Furman. The former Dorman High standout, who sat out last season after transferring from Presbyterian, made the All-SoCon Tournament first team along with Hodges. Celena Taborn and Davidson represented the Paladins on the All-Tournament second team. Taborn had 15 points Sunday, while Hodges scored 12 and Davidson had nine.
"It's not too hard to fit into this program. As the year went on, I just started to find my groove," Petty said. "Coach keeps yelling at me to take more shots, so I guess I finally did today."
Calloway, who set the Furman opponents' single-game record for 3-pointers when she hit 12-of-18 last season at Timmons Arena, was the Tournament's most outstanding player. Titus, who had 29 points in Mercer's win over Wofford in the semifinals, was held scoreless for the first three quarters Sunday but finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Selph had nine points and six blocks, while Thompson finished with eight points, eight rebounds and four steals for the Bears.
While there's still more basketball to be played this season, Furman will look to build off overcoming injuries to finish second in the league and reaching its first final since 2000. The Paladins will return everyone except lone senior, Kaitlyn Duncan, next season.
"It's been a long time since we've finished second, so that was a great accomplishment for us," Taborn said. "Getting to the championship for the first time since 2000 was great too. We just have to finish next time."