Mercer wins SoCon women's basketball tourney for fourth time in five years

AP photo by Kathy Kmonicek / Mercer guard Amoria Neal-Tysor
photo AP photo by Kathy Kmonicek / Mercer guard Amoria Neal-Tysor (1) looks to pass the ball away from Furman's Grace van Rij, left, and Janay Outten during the first half of the SoCon tournament title game Sunday in Asheville, N.C.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Mercer freshman Erin Houpt scored all 12 of her points in a dominating third quarter, and the Bears earned their fourth NCAA tournament berth and second in a row with a 73-54 win over Furman in the Southern Conference women's basketball title game Sunday.

After trailing 25-24 at halftime, the top-seeded Bears of Macon, Georgia, outscored the third-seeded Paladins 30-4 in the third quarter, opening and closing with Houpt 3-pointers on her birthday.

Amoria Neal-Tyson, the tournament MVP, had six assists and scored 26 points to lead Mercer (23-6), giving her 78 in three tournament games that were won by 39, 30 and 19 points. Shannon Titus scored 15 points, and the three-time SoCon defensive player of the year drew a critical offensive foul early in the third quarter. Jaron Dougherty added 13 points.

Mercer has won 12 straight games since its only conference loss this season, Jan. 20 at home against Furman, 69-66. The Bears also won back-to-back SoCon tourney titles in 2018 and 2019.

Tate Walters scored 20 points for Furman (19-12), which was trying to make its third NCAA appearance and first since 2000, when coach Jackie Carson (formerly Smith) was a player for the Paladins. Grace van Rij added 12 points.

The Paladins were handcuffed when SoCon player of the year Tierra Hodges, who has averaged 18.1 points and 12.1 rebounds this season, picked up her third and fourth fouls in the first five minutes of the third quarter. She finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.

Mercer turned the ball over in the closing minute of the second quarter, and the Paladins turned that into a pull-up 3-pointer by Walters for the lead.

"It was a tough way to finish the half," Bears coach Susie Gardner said. "We should have gone in with the lead. ... I was pretty upset."

Gardner credited the defense for turning things around in the third quarter, starting with Titus drawing a charge on Hodges barely 90 seconds in.

"We only have a couple players that will take a charge," she said.

After Houpt's 3-pointer to start the second half, Walters countered to tie the game. Houpt, the league freshman of the year, and Titus then combined on nine straight points in two minutes to start a 24-0 run. Doughtery had a 3-pointer at 2:06 to cap the run for a 51-27 lead.

Van Rij's free throw ended Furman's drought of 7:24, but the Paladins finished the quarter 1-of-10 from the floor with five turnovers. They even missed half of their four free throws.

After missing two shots to start the fourth quarter, van Rij ended the field-goal drought after 11 minutes, 15 seconds, but other than seven turnovers in the fourth quarter, giving them 10 in the game, Mercer never slowed down.

The Bears were 17-of-25 in the second half (68%) to finish at 53%. An 8-of-17 finish put Furman's final shooting at 18-of-52 (35%).