In Tiffany Mitchell’s short time playing college basketball, the junior guard has developed into a powerful force on the court. She has helped South Carolina reach the top of the national rankings for the first time in school history, while simultaneously becoming the school’s first (preseason) All-America selection.
Mitchell credits much of her success to her coach, Hall of Famer Dawn Staley.
“I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else,” Mitchell says. “That’s why I came to South Carolina, and that [she is my coach] makes everything that much better.”
The relationship between player and coach began long before Mitchell ever stepped on campus.
Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mitchell was always full of energy and desire to play basketball. When she was 8 years old, that meant starting out as the only girl on an all-boys team. As a 12-year-old, she joined her first girls AAU team and began to truly love the game.
Mitchell learned about Staley when she began playing basketball, and in the third grade completed a biography project about her life. A few years later, when she turned 13, she asked for only one present: A bright red Dawn Staley jersey she could wear to a Charlotte Sting game.
She got her wish. And she was captivated the first time she saw Mitchell play at the pro level. Mitchell had never seen a player with such tenacity. Sure, Staley could score. But she also did whatever her team needed her to do — a quality that would help her win three Olympic gold medals.
As Mitchell entered middle school, she set out to be just like her idol. She hung her Staley jersey on her wall amid family photos and school pictures and went to work on her own game.
But she could never have dreamt what was coming.
In just a few years, medals and newspaper clippings recognizing Mitchell’s own achievements joined the Staley jersey on her wall. In high school, she was named the 2012 Gatorade North Carolina Player of the Year and solidified her spot as one of the nation’s top recruits. But in her junior year, after only one official visit, she verbally committed to play for Staley at South Carolina.
Assistant coach Nikki McCray, a former Tennessee standout and two-time Olympic gold medalist, says that Staley took the time to get to know Mitchell personally during the recruiting process. She was able to separate the great player she had been from the great coach she could be to Mitchell, which allowed the two to share a vision of the program’s future.
“Tiffany allowed Coach to coach her and mentor her,” McCray says. “She didn’t come in a hot-headed freshman who thought she knew it all. She listened. And her game has gone to a new level because she’s believed in the process.”
During her first season, Mitchell started and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. But looking back, she admits she got away with a lot because of her athleticism.
Going into her sophomore year, Staley helped Mitchell develop her relentless approach. The focus was more on preparing Mitchell mentally more than physically to succeed at the college level.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” Mitchell says. “And Coach Staley knew I didn’t know what was going on. But she helped me to actually think basketball instead of just play basketball.”
The shift in focus worked. Mitchell became more dangerous on the court, able to shoot from the outside, finish strong to the rim, or even deploy her mid-range game. If opposing teams thought they’d catch her resting on defense, they soon discovered they were wrong.
Mitchell finished the season an All-SEC defender and made history by becoming just the second sophomore to be named SEC Player of the Year. And she was recognized as one of the country’s top guards when she was named a finalist for — of all honors — the Dawn Staley Award.
Next Stop: National Championship?
Mitchell’s coaches understand she chose them because she wants to do the things they’ve done, and they agree that through her competitiveness and work ethic, she puts herself in a position to do those things every day. Staley has also carefully placed other top talent around Mitchell, such as freshman A’ja Wilson, who was the number one recruit in the class of 2014.
How Mitchell jells with teammates like Wilson — and competes against great players on other teams — is key to South Carolina reaching its ultimate goal: a national title.
“Our players can only add to what we have and make this team go from good to great,” Staley says. “Tiffany will have to be able to play a key role, but also take a step back at times and allow other players to grow and develop like she did will be key.”
Mitchell agrees. And she knows she’s got a great coach — and mentor — that will help her reach her maximum potential.
“Even with all of her success on so many levels, she’s so selfless and cares so much about other people,” Mitchells says of her coach. “Since I’ve been here, she’s taught me how to look past myself and helped me realize everything is not about one person.”
Mitchell and Staley have this season and the next to win it all. It would be the perfect ending to their story.
Photos: Phil Sandlin/AP Photo (action), courtesy Tiffany Mitchell (bedroom wall), L.G. Patterson/AP Photo (Mitchell and Wilson)