“One” is still out there.
“Two” is in the bag.
South Carolina claimed its second straight SEC regular-season championship with a 69-50 win agianst No. 11 Mississippi State on Thursday, junior Tiffany Mitchell leading the way with 16 points. Mitchell’s athleticism allowed her to slip over and through the Bulldogs’ physical paint presence, guiding the Gamecocks to their program record-tying 32nd straight home win and putting them on the brink of another milestone.
USC heads to No. 13 Kentucky on Sunday seeking a perfect league season, which would be the program’s first and the 17th in SEC history. The Gamecocks would be the second team to win 16 SEC games in a season after Tennessee did it in 2011.
At worst, the Gamecocks will be co-champions of the SEC this season. As such, they will receive a trophy and be able to hang a banner at Colonial Life Arena. But USC can have the title all to itself by winning Sunday – then preparing for the biggest challenge: the “one” waiting in April in Tampa.
“We’re trying to be greedy,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think as a kid, I was too good at sharing anyway.”
The Gamecocks (27-1, 15-0 SEC) never trailed against the feisty Bulldogs (25-5, 10-5), who are in the midst of their best season in school history and relying on a strong, physical team with a deep bench and two stars. Center Martha Alwal continued to wrap a career as one of the most dominant bigs in league history, and freshman Victoria Vivians supplied the scoring punch.
Yet, USC had more than enough to counter, although everyone but Mitchell struggled to fill the basket. The Gamecocks started guard Olivia Gaines as a Senior Day tradition, and fans were reminded why she was recruited to come here.
Gaines bulldogged Vivians all game, never letting her too far from sight, and added a career-high nine points, three rebounds and a steal. Her lockdown defense of Vivians gave USC an early lead, and while Vivians got her points (14), the Gamecocks never let the game get below a three-point cushion.
“In the old days, you’d ask what flavor of gum she was chewing,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “I guarantee you, Gaines could tell her.”
Mitchell, upset when Aleighsa Welch briefly left the game after landing hard on her back, scored seven straight points in a first-half stretch and MSU faced a double-digit deficit for the entire second half. MSU continued to hammer USC with hard fouls and finding four 3-pointers from little-used LaKaris Salter, but the Bulldogs didn’t have enough answers to counter the Gamecocks.
USC and the 15,047 fans at Colonial Life Arena counted down the final seconds, and the Gamecocks celebrated – but not too hard. They want the undisputed title.
“I think for where our program is trying to go, it would take a step in the wrong direction if we didn’t perform on the road against Kentucky,” Staley said.
The Gamecocks clinched the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC tournament, the second straight year they earned the top spot. USC will play its first tournament game at 1 p.m. on March 6 against the winner of the 8-9-seed game.
Staley has improved her SEC win total in every one of her seven seasons at USC. USC also tied a program record with its 32nd straight home win, but there’s still more to gain.
Staley spoke of how she thought the Gamecocks slowed after clinching the title last season, and it came back to bite them in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. With this team poised to be one of the most dangerous in March, she doesn’t want comfort seeping into her locker room.
“I make sure that our players understand the big picture and where we’re trying to go,” Staley said, “but also understand the history of this program and where it’s come from, to keep that hunger.”