ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — With an 11-point lead and the experience of three straight championships, Chattanooga appeared well on its way to a fourth straight NCAA Tournament berth with 10 minutes left in the Southern Conference tournament title game on Sunday.
Then Mercer turned up the defense and appeared to rattle the Mocs in the battle of the SoCon co-champions.
But Chattanooga, with the only senior in the game and a Hall of Fame coach on the bench, settled down and pulled away for a 65-57 win.
Queen Alford scored 17 points, Jasmine Joyner had a double-double and the Mocs used a late 9-0 run to run their winning streak to 11.
"We got out and got a nice lead and then they threw a new wrinkle and we didn't react for the first three minutes or so and that was enough to get them back," Mocs coach Jim Foster said. "But then we made some timely plays and did some good things."
Chattanooga (24-7) had a 13-point lead late in the third quarter and was up 51-40 entering the fourth quarter when Mercer charged back.
Forcing six turnovers, the Bears (24-8) went on a 12-2 run, to take a 54-53 lead on a basket by Kahlia Lawrence with 4:07 to play. Sydni Means had six points in the surge.
Joyner and Keiana Gilbert answered before Alford added a 3, followed by a layup to make it 62-54 with a minute to play. Mercer made just one of its last seven shots after making five straight to take the lead.
Joyner finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and lone senior Alicia Payne, the tournament MVP, had 12 points and five assists for Chattanooga, which was in its 17th title game and is now going to its 14th NCAA Tournament.
Keke Calloway had 18 points off the bench for Mercer, which was the No. 1 seed after both teams won by more than 20 points at home in their regular-season matchups. Means added 15 with five rebounds and five assists. Both players made the all-tournament team with Alford, Joyner and Payne.
Four Chattanooga players had 3s in the first quarter when the Mocs opened a 21-13 lead and they were 6 of 11 in the first half (5 of 15 inside the arc) with a 21-10 rebounding advantage for a 33-24 lead.
Chattanooga: Jasmine Joyner, the nation's leader in blocked schools with 125, did not have a block. ... One of the top shot-blocking teams in the nation at 6.6 a game, the Mocs only had two. ... For the second straight game, Chattanooga only used one sub, Moses Johnson, who did not score. .... Hall of Fame coach Jim Foster is headed to the NCAAs for the 28th time in 31 seasons, the third straight at with the Mocs. He also took St. Joseph's, Vanderbilt and Ohio State to the Big Dance.
Mercer: The Bears set a record for wins at the Division I level and most since going 24-7 in 1984-85 when they advanced to the D-II Final Four. ... Mercer started at least three freshmen in every game this season and they usually start with two sophomores. There are no seniors and just one junior on the roster. ... SoCon Player of the Year Kahlia Lawrence was held to eight points, 10 below her average, on 3-of-12 shooting.