This wasn’t a miracle. A miracle would connotate something unexpected. This was something South Carolina wanted, something it needed, and as the season progressed, something it expected.
On Thursday, it was something obtained.
The No. 4 Gamecocks claimed their first SEC regular-season championship with a 67-56 win against Georgia, outlasting one of the SEC’s traditional powers to bring home the title for coach Dawn Staley. Her six-year reclamation project has featured several milestones and highlights, but none bigger than this.
“You work so hard to accomplish this and you tend not to think about how you’re supposed to act,” Staley said. “It seems just so surreal. I think our kids have worked extremely hard and put themselves in a position to be SEC champions. And we took care of business.”
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USC claimed the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament and will play the winner of the eighth and ninth seed at noon on March 7. The Gamecocks have one regular-season game to play, at No. 10 Tennessee on Sunday, but the result won’t affect USC’s standing.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and USC athletics director Ray Tanner were on hand to present the trophy to USC, the program’s sixth conference championship, but first in the SEC. Sporting garnet championship T-shirts, Staley’s 12 players and her staff each took a turn holding and caressing the piece of hardware they fought for all season. Picked seventh by the media in the preseason poll, the Gamecocks stormed to the title with a 14-1 SEC record.
“It was a beautiful thing to see them rejoice, because we have left this court with our heads down and tears running down our face because we were defeated,” Staley said. “(The fans) painted a beautiful picture for us, because I didn’t know what it would look like to be SEC champions.”
Tiffany Mitchell seemed tired, but exhaustion couldn’t hide her broad grin. The sophomore carried USC to the title, scoring a career-high 25 points on a night during which the Gamecocks’ offense was derailed from the tip. Their trusted approach of working the ball to bigs Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates was stagnated when Ibiam couldn’t find the rim and Coates picked up three first-half fouls, but Mitchell’s fearless determination forced the other Gamecocks to keep finding her.
She twisted into the lane for 16 first-half points, then delivered the back-breaker in the second. With Georgia finding its shooting touch after an icy first half, USC was struggling to stay afloat. Free throws, a severe weakness over the past two seasons but a 30-of-38 gem on Thursday, were keeping the Gamecocks in the game. But, the Bulldogs (18-10, 6-9 SEC) would not go away.
Mitchell found herself in the corner with a 10-point lead and 7:34 to play. With the Gamecocks (26-2, 14-1) not having hit a 3-pointer all night, Mitchell rose and swished the first.
“She said when the shot clock got low, if we couldn’t get it inside, just shoot,” Mitchell said. “Khadijah (Sessions) found me and I hit it.”
“Tiffany Mitchell has been a player that every time we needed a basket or a stop, she got it for us,” Staley said. “Second half, she hit a big shot, hit a 3, to keep us up by 13 when Georgia was making a run. She’s done it all season long.”
Coates finished with 18 points, snaring four rebounds and scoring seven points on four consecutive possessions, and USC cruised to the finish. Staley was able to empty the bench to get everybody playing time on a historic night, and sent the 12,458 fans home happy. It was the second-largest crowd to watch a women’s basketball game in Colonial Life Arena history, topping the previous second-largest that was set in the last game.
Staley could reflect while celebrating. It took a long time to get here. The players that came before, the builders, were just as much a part of this as the current team. Even some of her former players at Temple were texting her, telling her they felt like honorary alumni of USC.
“It’s great to have them circle back and feel this moment because it’s something that escaped them,” Staley said. “But they still have a part of our history in helping us get to this point.
“Why not us? It’s something I said six years ago. We made it happen.”
Miller 1-6 2-4 4, Griffin 2-5 0-0 4, Hempe 2-8 0-0 4, Donald 2-2 0-1 4, Ford 7-20 1-1 17, Barbee 4-15 4-9 14, Causwell 0-2 0-0 0, Washington 2-4 1-1 5, Butler 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 22-67 8-16 56.
SOUTH CAROLINA (26-2)
Sessions 1-4 3-4 5, Montout 0-3 0-0 0, Welch 2-5 2-2 6, Mitchell 7-10 10-10 25, Ibiam 2-6 2-6 6, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 1-4 0-0 2, Davis 0-1 2-2 2, Morrison 0-0 0-0 0, Roy 0-0 3-4 3, Dozier 0-1 0-0 0, Coates 5-9 8-10 18. Totals 18-43 30-38 67.
Halftime_South Carolina 30-18. 3-Point Goals_Georgia 4-14 (Barbee 2-4, Ford 2-4, Butler 0-1, Griffin 0-1, Miller 0-2, Hempe 0-2), South Carolina 1-5 (Mitchell 1-2, Dozier 0-1, Sessions 0-1, Montout 0-1). Fouled Out_Causwell, Hempe. Rebounds_Georgia 38 (Barbee, Donald 7), South Carolina 38 (Ibiam 9). Assists_Georgia 7 (Donald 3), South Carolina 7 (Welch 3). Total Fouls_Georgia 27, South Carolina 17. Technicals_Causwell, Welch. Attendance_12,458.