ASHEVILLE, N.C. — For everybody in the U.S. Cellular Center on Sunday, time briefly froze.
They all watched as Mercer's Linnea Rosendal's last-second jump shot — which if good would have tied and sent the game into overtime — bounced off the front of the rim, bounced off the back iron and rolled off, giving the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team a 61-59 win in the Southern Conference tournament championship game.
The top-seeded Mocs (21-10) improved to 18-0 in SoCon championship games with their fifth consecutive title, and they will find out their NCAA tournament fate a week from today. Mercer (25-6) lost to the Mocs for the third time this season but should earn a National Invitation Tournament berth.
UTC senior Jasmine Joyner finished with 17 points, 15 rebounds and four assists and was named the tournament's most outstanding player for the second time. Her rebounds total moved her into a tie for third place all-time at UTC with 975, matching Tina Chairs (1980-84).
Lakelyn Bouldin scored 13 points and Aryanna Gilbert added 11, taking advantage of mismatches against smaller Mercer defenders. Bouldin made the all-tournament team along with guard Chelsey Shumpert, who struggled Sunday but hit a pair of crucial free throws in the final minute.
But the biggest contribution may have come from Queen Alford, who scored 11 of her 13 points in the fourth quarter to help erase a 10-point lead Mercer brought into the final period. All 13 of her points came in the final 10:03.
"We changed defenses and we started to pick up a little energy," UTC coach Jim Foster said. "Queen is an energy force for us off the bench. She brings a little extra juice for us. When she gets on fire, you keep going her way. She felt it, and you could sense it. The players sensed it, and she came up with some big baskets. She was ready."
Mercer had been led by a hot-shooting player as well — KeKe Calloway, who finished with 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting from 3-point range. Sixteen of her points came in the first half, which ended with the Bears leading 32-29. They started the third quarter on a 15-3 run to build a 13-point lead, holding the Mocs without a basket for the first 8:19 of the period, and the second-seeded Bears took a 48-38 lead into the fourth quarter.
Then Alford took over, with a 3-pointer and a layup in the first minute of the period. That started a flurry as Joyner made a 3-pointer and Gilbert added another layup.
Alford followed with a three-point play to cut Mercer's lead to 52-51, then Gilbert scored to give the Mocs their first lead since 21-19 in the second quarter. She followed with another layup, then an Alford 3 seemed to put the Mocs firmly in control, but Kahlia Lawrence hit a 3 to cut UTC's lead to 58-55 with 1:51 to play.
Shumpert made two free throws, but Calloway answered with a 3-pointer 25 feet away from the basket to cut the UTC lead to 60-59 with 16.1 seconds to play. The Mocs turned the ball over on the inbounds play, but Lawrence missed a layup and Joyner grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
She made the second of two free throws with 3.9 seconds to play, which gave the Bears one last shot. Rosendal had a clean look, but the miss sent the Mocs on the court in celebration.
Lawrence added 22 points on 8-for-22 shooting, while Sydni Means finished with six points and 11 assists and Amanda Thompson had 10 rebounds (six offensive). The Bears ran early, with 15 fast-break points in the first half, but they had none in the second half.
The Mocs converted four turnovers into nine points in the final period.
Mercer coach Susie Gardner's squad came close to the upset, though, after losing 74-56 and 70-50 to UTC during the regular season.
"I couldn't be more proud to be Mercer's coach and of the team we put out on the floor this entire year," Gardner said. "I thought we outplayed Chattanooga for 28 minutes. Our word for the year was 'finish,' and that's what we needed to do. We needed to get stops and shots and not have untimely turnovers. That's not what happened.
"This is very difficult, but we are proud of this group and the season that we've had."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.