For the past two years, March had become a frustratingly familiar experience for Ally Welch and her Mercer University women’s basketball teammates. The Bears would win more than 20 games, lose in the Southern Conference tournament championship and get a spot in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
These were fine accomplishments, but not enough for Mercer. When “March Madness” suddenly returns to the country’s parlance, it does not refer to the WNIT.
So there was the South Forsyth grad and her teammates this past Sunday night, seated in a row of chairs on the court at Hawkins Arena, watching ESPN’s NCAA Women’s Tournament selection show on the jumbotron.
Eventually, Mercer’s name, seed and opponent flashed on the screen.
Welch, her teammates and an arena full of fans erupted.
“It’s always been something a lot of my teammates watched and wish they could be a part of and really experience,” Welch said. “To have all of us have that opportunity to be a part of it and see our names up there and the anticipation of who were going to play was exciting.”
Mercer is a 13-seed in the East Region, but they don’t get an exotic experience for their first-round game. The Bears will face Georgia, a No. 4 seed, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Mercer lost to the Bulldogs 72-54 in Macon during the regular season.
That has been just one of two losses for the Bears in what has otherwise been a record-breaking season. Mercer is 30-2 and on a 27-game winning streak, the longest in program history. Its SoCon tournament championship was the first ever for the program, and Saturday’s NCAA Tournament appearance is a milestone too.
Welch was a big part of South’s girls program reaching unprecedented heights when it made the 2014 Class 6A state semifinals, the deepest state tournament run for a GHSA girls team from Forsyth County since 1970 at the time, but she’s been less relied-on at Mercer. This season, the junior guard has appeared in 17 games, averaging 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 5.8 minutes a game.
So Welch has embraced other methods of making an impact for the Bears.
“Be the teammate that can make things more exciting, or just have the energy when things seem like they’re dragging on,” Welch said. “I feel like that’s an important role in making sure we’re ready every single day.”
Welch said the Bears are especially eager for Saturday’s game. Mercer has played Georgia in the regular season the past several years, and the game’s proximity should help the Bears receive extra support in the stands from their passionate fan-base.
“It’s not a bigger show than we’ve seen before,” Welch said. “It’s also a good matchup for us. We have high hopes, and we’re ready to be able to play against them again and hopefully get their attention, make them see that we’re really here and deserve to be here.”