March 19, 2022 

Visiting Storrs: Inside Mercer, UCF and Florida’s visit to the Nutmeg State

Finding the next level requires two-way performances

STORRS — Out of a timeout midway through the second quarter, Mercer head coach Susie Gardner took a long swig of her water bottle, set it down firmly on the scorer’s table, and looked out onto the floor plaintively. Her engine, senior guard Amoria Neal-Tysor, was gone, falling victim to an elbow injury that put her out of the game and her arm into a sling. Her team struggling to find open shots. On one sequence midway through the second quarter, UConn scored, then stole two straight subsequent inbounds passes to score twice more. In the third quarter, Mercer didn’t score at all.

It all added up to another great season for Mercer — 23-7, another Southern Conference championship — but a loss in the NCAA Tournament, 83-38, to UConn.

“That third quarter really absolutely it was just it was a nightmare because, we didn’t play awful the first half, but we didn’t really handle the third quarter at all,” Gardner said in her postgame presser. “And I think what UConn did was they amped up their, their defense was amazing. Their press was great.”

Simply put, the Bears were an elite defensive team this season, entering the game 11th in the nation in opposing points per possession. But at 132nd on offense, asking Mercer to battle a team like the Huskies, who are elite at both ends, is a difficult task.

For Mercer, bigger = better

For her part, Gardner sees the next evolution of Mercer coming through recruiting taller players, especially guards but also low post threats to go along with elite shooters like Erin Houpt, who hit 41 percent of her threes as a freshman, Gardner’s first player at Mercer to do so.

“Our problem today with UConn was they were five-eleven, five-eleven, and five-eleven and if we want to advance — and not just win the SoCon — if we want to advance, we’ve got to have those players that can match the size of at least the guards,” Gardner said.

The loss of Neal-Tysor, who fell to the floor in the second quarter, simply reinforced the difficulties Mercer was already experiencing — shooting just 4-for-16 in the first quarter. Even the SoCon first-teamer Neal-Tysor, when she drove to the basket, found herself unable to finish, with Mercer needing to work so hard for what open shots they could get.

But it is possible to see that future offense, even amid the difficulties of this loss. Houpt played 32 minutes in this one. And much of the second half was devoted to teaching, for the future standouts of this Mercer team. After an errant pass by Houpt led to a Paige Bueckers steal and runout, Gardner called a timeout, came over to Houpt, the freshman, the coach’s hands together to impart a lesson — meet the ball when it is passed to you, and you draw a foul on that play, rather than turn it over.

“I probably coached Erin as hard as anybody on the whole team this year,” Gardner said. “I had the seniors and the super seniors and the transfers, but Erin was that freshman that I felt like needed a little bit more Susie Gardner love — and she would not think it was love… I mean, I’m always nitpicking on something, but that’s what that moment was. I remember it specifically.”

The lead grew to 40, but Houpt stayed out there, sinking her first three early in the fourth quarter, running the offense in Neal-Tysor’s absence. Finally, Houpt exited with around four minutes left, replaced by another freshman, Kinley Fisher, part of Mercer’s future backcourt getting time at Gampel Pavilion. The lessons will pay off in the years to come.

Central Florida’s Brittney Smith (32) and Diamond Battles (3) pressure Florida’s Alberti Rimdal (5) in NCAA first round action March 19, 2022. (Howard Megdal photo)

Scary Knights ahead

In the second half of the doubleheader, Central Florida showed why Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s Knights are becoming such a problem for the country. Consistently in the top 20 in the country in defensive efficiency since she arrived after building a perennial America East power at UAlbany, Coach Abe has herself a team who can score the ball as well now. Considering the Knights allow a national-best 0.628 points per possession this season, per Synergy, that makes them particularly dangerous.

As UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said, referring to his own team earlier in the day: “You can’t win with just playing really good defense, you know? Otherwise there would be a lot of great defensive teams that win a lot of championships. You still have to be able to put the ball in the basket, right? So you have to be able to score.”

Central Florida can. Diamond Battles, a 5’8 senior, is a rugged penetrator who can get to the rim or shoot from beyond the arc. Alisha Lewis is deadly from three, 43.4 percent entering the NCAA Tournament. And even secondary performers like Brittney Smith, who entered the game at 0.96 points per possession, in the 92nd percentile nationally per HerHoopStats, can come in and punish opposing defenses, reaching double figures before halftime against the Gators in Saturday’s 69-52 win. She’s now done so in seven of her last nine games. On Saturday, she finished with a career-high 26.

“I mean, I’m just going out there and doing what I do best,” Smith said. “I don’t know, I just want to score. I just want to bring my team up in any way possible. Just going to go out and shoot what’s open.”

UCF raced out to a customary 34-23 halftime lead, holding Florida to 26 percent shooting. The number of significance? UCF at 48.4 percent, after shooting 45 percent or better in five of the team’s final seven games this regular season and AAC Tournament. They finished at 45.2.

“We talk about balanced scoring all the time, and I think that really helped us,” Abrahamson-Henderson said postgame. “Obviously our defense holding this team to 52 point is great, too. So I just felt like we did a good job playing defense, but scoring for us, that is a big deal.”

The toll it can take on a team was clear in a two-possession sequence late in the third quarter. After Florida had cut the UCF lead to 45-39, the Knights calmly worked the ball into Smith, who finished with an elegant turnaround from around eight feet out. That set the UCF press, ultimately leading Zippy Broughton to run into Masseny Keba, a charge that gave the ball back to UCF. Florida called timeout to reset — the two-way pressure makes the Knights a much harder team to handle. By the end of the third, Florida had stalled, UCF led by double digits, and would not be seriously challenged again.

But for Florida, which faced adversity of almost every imaginable kind, the 2021-22 season clearly bound them together. As head coach Kelly Rae Finley answered questions, her Florida players stayed on the podium with her. As she spoke about the challenges, Zippy Broughton and Nina Rickards nodded along in time — a coach and her players in sync. The decision to extend her, watching her with her team, was an obvious one. So what does success look like a year from now?

“Continue to do what we’re doing,” Finley said. “I think that’s the best way to put it. Relentless work ethic. A joy centered around your daily life, a joy centered around each other. That’s never gonna change in this program.”

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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