By DANIEL SHIRLEY
Kendra Grant vividly remembers the year her Mercer women’s basketball team won just two games. It’s hard to forget considering it was just two seasons ago.
But the Bears put those memories to rest with a 63-53 win over Jacksonville on Thursday in the first round of the 2013 General Shale A-Sun Basketball Championship. It marked Mercer’s first win in the tournament since 2009.
The Bears, who improved to 20-10 this season, had failed to qualify for the tournament the past two seasons and lost in the first round in 2010.
“It’s just amazing, to come back and bounce back from seasons like that to be where are now and what we’ve been able accomplish,” said Grant, who is a junior. “It just shows you what hard work and playing together can do for a team.”
The Bears improved from two wins in 2010-11 to six wins last year, but they still failed to qualify for the conference championship. There was no doubt they would make it to the championship this year after they rolled off a 13-game winning streak in the middle of the season.
Getting the win on Wednesday, their first since the first round of the 2009 Championship, was another big step forward for the program.
Mercer improved to 9-23 in its conference championship history.
“It’s very exciting,” Grant said. “Coming into today, knowing I would be out there on the floor for a lot of minutes, it was very exciting, and knowing we have a chance to go all the way, that’s great. It’s just a great win for our program for us to move forward.”
Grant played a key role in the victory. She finished with 10 points and had two key baskets, the Bears’ first two of the second half, to give Mercer some breathing room after they led by four at halftime. Grant finished the day shooting 4-of-12 from the floor, including 2-of-7 from 3-point range.
“I got some open looks and got some good screens from my teammates, and they got me some good passes for open looks, and I was just knocking them down,” Grant said. “That was big for us.”
It was also important for Grant to play well in her hometown.
“It’s very special because you know you’re going to have your home crowd and have your family and friends who have been following you and cheering you on,” Grant said. “It’s very exciting that you have that support and that love out in the crowd.”
That crowd got to see a milestone victory for the Mercer program. Thursday’s victory marked the first time since the 1991-92 season that the Bears have won 20 games in a season.
“That’s big,” Grant said. “It definitely will be a memory that I keep with me forever and remember how special this season has been.”
Now Grant and the Bears have to turn their focus to the semifinals. Mercer will play Stetson at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. The Hatters defeated the Bears twice during the regular season.
“Well, we just played them recently, so they are fresh on our minds,” Grant said. “We just have to remember what we did well against them and work on the things we didn’t do well and work hard and be ready to play them again.”