Tiffany Mitchell, No. 3 Gamecocks ready for NCAA Tournament
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Tiffany Mitchell is ready for her final college break at South Carolina to end.
The third-ranked Gamecocks senior forward was grateful for the break and to get away for a few days after sweeping the Southeastern Conference with a 16-0 regular season and league tournament championship. However, Mitchell said she and her teammates are eager to learn where they'll begin NCAA Tournament.
There's no mystery that South Carolina (31-1) will gain its third straight No. 1 seed when the NCAA brackets are revealed Monday night - and Mitchell said the Gamecocks have taken a back-to-work approach in prepping for a run at a second straight Final Four appearance and they hope, a national title.
''We've been here before. We know what's ahead of us,'' Mitchell said Friday. ''We know how to prepare. Now we've just got to go do it.''
The lone drama in South Carolina's case is which region it will head up. Most projections leading up to Monday had the SEC champions as the second overall seed to three-time defending NCAA winner UConn and atop the regional in Lexington, Kentucky.
But No. 2 Notre Dame could end up in the Kentucky locale, which is closest to the South Bend, Indiana campus.
The other three regional sites are Bridgeport, Connecticut; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Dallas.
Mitchell said in the end it does not matter where South Carolina plays, just that the Gamecocks play well enough to make it back to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Mitchell acknowledged that all the team's past accomplishments, including this season's stellar run, would fade a bit if the Gamecocks stumble on the way to Indy.
''It's been something we've talked about all season and we don't want to give that up because we didn't play our best'' in early round games, Mitchell said.
South Carolina needed Mitchell at her best to reach the Final Four a season ago. She hit a layup with 3.5 seconds left to beat North Carolina 67-65 in the Sweet 16 last year, then scored seven straight points late in a come from behind, 80-74 win over Florida State to advance.
A'ja Wilson, who supplanted two-time SEC player of the year Mitchell to garner this year's honor, said South Carolina has consistently found ways to overcome offensive lulls and get wins. She also understands the Gamecocks might not be so lucky to escape in NCAA play if they aren't at their best from the jump.
''Last year, we learned how to put the guard up and win,'' said Wilson, the Gamecocks top scorer (16.4 points a game) who also won SEC defensive player of the year. ''This season, we've got to learn to keep the guard up. We can't let down.''
Mitchell said she was a big reason for South Carolina's spotty offense. She spent more than three months recovering from surgery to her left foot, then had to learn to overcome the fear of pain or re-injury when moving at top speed.
''I played like no defense in nonconference play,'' she said, ''because I wanted to save what I had for offense.''
Mitchell said coach Dawn Staley let her take about any shot she wanted early on to get her star player back in the flow. When things didn't click, Mitchell got down on herself and continued to struggle.
Gradually, Mitchell's game came back to life. She earned the SEC Tournament MVP last weekend, scoring 20 points in a semifinal blowout (93-63) over Kentucky and 19 in the championship game to beat Mississippi State.
''I feel more like myself,'' Mitchell said.
And that's why Mitchell can't wait for a last attempt to earn the Gamecocks first women's basketball championship.
''We want to take the next step,'' she said.