East Tennessee State coach Karen Kemp has never had to worry much about her team qualifying for the Atlantic Sun Conference women’s basketball tournament.
She may not this year either, but the thought is at least crossing her mind in mid-February.
The Lady Bucs lost their fourth straight game Saturday, basically coming unglued in the second half of a 67-58 loss to Mercer. They led by a point at the half but made only two of their next 18 shots and withered away.
The loss leaves them tied for eighth in the standings, at 4-10, with four games left in the regular season. Northern Kentucky, the fourth-place team, isn’t eligible for postseason play, and Lipscomb is 1-12, so there appears to be some wiggle room in making the eight-team tournament field.
But after what she’s seen lately, Kemp was sounding the alarm Saturday.
“It’s crunch time, and I don’t want to be sitting in Johnson City come tournament time,” she said. “We need to turn this around, and turn it quick.”
It may be hard to turn without Destiny Mitchell. The junior forward has been playing on a bad knee the last few weeks, and she sat out Saturday’s game.
Kemp said Mitchell, who is averaging 11.8 points and 8.6 rebounds, is “day to day.” The Lady Bucs host Kennesaw State, the team right behind them, on Monday night.
“We’re going to give Destiny another day’s rest and see what she can do,” said Kemp. “We definitely miss her on the floor.”
Without Mitchell, the Lady Bucs (6-15 overall) didn’t have much of an answer for Mercer’s one-two punch of Kendra Grant and Precious Bridges.
Grant kept her team close with 15 of her game-high 23 points in the first half. Bridges, the leading scorer in the conference, had 10 in each half to finish three points above her season average.
While the Lady Bucs are bailing water, the Lady Bears are riding high with an 11-game winning streak.
Coach Susie Gardner’s team won only six games a year ago. It’s now 17-7 overall and 12-2 in the conference.
The turnaround in wins is reportedly the largest in the country at present.
“Part of it is our freshmen are now sophomores,” said Gardner, who is in her third season at Mercer. “Part of it is trust. We got on a roll early and kind of took off.”
It remains to be seen whether Mercer can ultimately challenge Florida Gulf Coast, which is working on back-to-back unbeaten seasons in conference. The Bears lost 70-41 on their home floor in the teams’ first meeting – and haven’t lost since.
“I’m not thinking about Florida Gulf Coast right now,” said Gardner. “That’s the only comment I have about that.”
The Lady Bears looked like they were in for a struggle Saturday. They trailed 34-33 at the half, after watching the Lady Bucs shoot 50 percent and outrebound them by five.
That all turned quickly in the second half.
Mercer had the lead with a minute gone and steadily added to it. It was a 12-point game by the midpoint as ETSU misfired one shot after another.
The Lady Bucs didn’t get back within 10 until the final minute. They shot 6 for 31 (19.4 percent) in the half, which more than offset a 19-7 advantage at the foul line.
“It seems like our defensive pressure got away from us in the second half,” said freshman point guard Brianna McQueen, who led the team with 12 points. “And we made a lot of turnovers.”
Said Kemp, “We weren’t scoring, and we weren’t getting stops.”
Tiana Burley scored 11 points for ETSU. Cara Bowling added 10 but was 2 of 11 from the field.
The Lady Bucs held a 42-35 edge on the boards, with Serena Clark grabbing eight rebounds, and Bowling and Maria Bond six apiece.
Sharnea Boykin handed out eight assists with just one turnover in 39 minutes for the Lady Bears.