HL Sixth Player of the Year Williams lands at Mercer

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The first of Cleveland State’s four transfer portal entries officially has a new home, as graduate guard Deja Williams announced her commitment to Mercer on social media Wednesday evening.

Last season, the 13th of the Susie Gardner era at Mercer, the Bears were 12-16 overall and 8-6 in the Southern Conference, the latter number good for a fifth-place finish in the standings. That outcome belied the school’s recent history though, as MU won the SoCon tournament championship and the related NCAA Tournament automatic bid in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022 (the Bears also have five regular season titles since 2016). Despite accomplishments like a 27-game winning streak and a 30-3 overall record in 2017-18, the school has never had a ton of luck with seeding, pulling opponents like Connecticut and South Carolina on its last two trips to March Madness.

Mercer’s hopes of proving 2022-23 an anomaly rely on a successful roster reset. Guard Amoria Neal-Tysor, the league’s leading scorer for the last two seasons, is out of eligibility, while her backcourt mate, Erin Houpt, took 12.8 points per game into the portal. SoCon all-defensive team member Summah Evans, a 6-0 forward, is expected back, as is star freshman Enjulina Gonzalez.

Unsurprisingly, Gardner has looked to patch at least a couple holes through the transfer market. Beyond the CSU grad they just picked up, the Bears have brought on guard Hanna Knoll (Central Michigan), forward Stacie Jones (Kennesaw State), and forward Mackenzie Johnson (Division II’s Young Harris College). MU has also added juco All-American guards Briana Peguero and Cianté Downs. The roster’s backcourt will be crowded, to say the least, and it’s hard to say how it will all mesh together right now. But for a team that looks to produce through waves of smallish guards, Williams should certainly be able to find a reliable place on the floor.

Williams, of course, started her collegiate career at Cal State Northridge, where she made the Big West’s all-freshman team after averaging 9.8 points per game and knocking down 51 three-pointers. However, CSUN suspended its program for the post-COVID 2020-21 campaign, prompting a transfer to Cleveland State for the last two seasons. Though the Long Beach, CA native was never consistently a starter for the Vikings, she typically played top-five minutes and was often the first player off Chris Kielsmeier’s bench, taking on point guard duties either to spell Destiny Leo or to allow her to move off the ball. Williams slashed and sniped her to 6.6 points per game in 2022-23 while sharing the team’s assist lead and placing second in steals, numbers good enough to secure the Horizon League’s Sixth Player of the Year award in February.

With Williams dropping off the board, Gabriella Smith, Aminata Ly and Julia Hintz are the outgoing Vikings who remain uncommitted. CSU took a positive step in the opposite direction late last week with its first transfer addition of the offseason, Division II sharpshooter Mickayla Perdue.

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