SOUTH CAROLINA basketball fans know Tiffany Mitchell is the two-time SEC Player of the Year. They know Dawn Staley’s teams have won 25 or more games for four consecutive seasons. They also know senior Aleighsa Welch as the team’s leader and unofficial spokesperson.
Following are a few other “important” facts to know about the USC women as they embark Friday on a quest to win the NCAA championship.
ABOUT THAT CANDY
You probably have noticed that Staley sucks on Life Savers mints while she paces the sideline during games. Well, there is more that goes into her in-game eating habit than having a manager line the mints on the scorer’s table before every game.
Petra Ujhelyi, who played center for USC from 2000 to 2003, is a graduate assistant and the current team’s head manager. She, along with a couple of her manager colleagues, are responsible for setting out the stash not only for Staley but for the assistant coaches and players.
“It’s cute. It’s fun,” Ujhelyi says. “Everything is detail-oriented.”
That means placing about two dozen of Staley’s mints in rows of three on the scorer’s table adjacent to the USC bench. But there is more. Several types of gum also are placed there, along with varying flavors of Life Savers.
“I can’t keep track of how much candy is there,” Welch says.
Ujhelyi says the managers purchase the candy and gum in bulk from Sam’s Club and have learned precisely how much of each needs to be sorted each game. Staley, for instance, has been known to plow through all 24 mints by halftime. Of course, in those cases, her supply is replenished for the second half.
During pregame warmups, one manager is required to hand freshman A’ja Wilson a single green Life Savers. Sophomore Alaina Coates heads to the scorer’s table during warmups and picks the three or four cherry mints out of the pack, chewing one at a time until tip-off.
Then there are those who opt for Big Red chewing gum. Wilson, senior Elem Ibiam are Big Red fans, and assistant coach Lisa Boyer has been known to plop three pieces of Big Red in her mouth at once before a game.
There is a little bit of superstition involved in the candy and gum distribution, players and coaches wanting to stick to a routine that has worked in all but two games this season. Staley has another reason for sucking on Life Savers.
“I choose the mints so when I’m chewing out an official,” she says, “I’ll have fresh breath.”
ABOUT THOSE HEELS
Prior to every USC game, Staley and her coaching staff enter the locker room in what Mitchell described as a “little runway.” The players have grown to anticipate what Staley has pulled out of her closet to wear that night and particularly what kind of high heels she will don.
“You dress up for games,” Staley says. “It makes it professional when you’re able to put on some high heels and dress up. I like my pants long, because if I wore flats my pants would be dragging on the floor. I really don’t want that.”
Staley can stretch her height on the sideline to 5-foot-8 with a pair of 3-inch heels. Because of her “passion for fashion” Staley rarely wears a set of heels twice during a season. She will not reveal the deepness of her shoe collection but admits she “can’t walk away from a pair that calls my name.”
Her top-of-the-line Christian Louboutin red bottom shoes are the envy of her players.
“When I grow up, I want to be able to afford red bottoms like her,” says Coates, who at 6-4 has been known to wear 4-inch heels because “you are never too tall to wear heels.”
ABOUT THOSE SHORTS, THOSE PEARLS
Wilson, the 6-5 SEC Freshman of the Year, wears throwback short shorts on the floor and stylish pearls – around her neck, on her wrists and, yes, in her belly button – off the court.
Abandoning the trend in college basketball to wear shorts that touch the knees, Wilson began letting them creep up her long legs while at Heathwood Hall. Because her high school could not custom fit shorts, Wilson folded the elastic waistband down a couple of turns, thus making the shorts, well, shorter.
“I didn’t like the shorts that touched my knees,” she says. “They felt uncomfortable to me.”
Upon arriving at USC, Wilson opted for size medium shorts, but she still rolls the waistband down to shorten those shorts further. She recently attended a recreation league basketball game in Columbia and was flabbergasted to see some girls had rolled their waistbands as well.
Wilson also might start a trend in pearl-wearing. About 30 necklaces and 10 bracelets of pearls are usually scattered about her dormitory room at USC. Most are white, but she has some pink necklaces and a garnet-and-black colored necklace she wore for her high school graduation ceremony.
Wilson’s obsession with pearls began in high school when her grandmother, Hattie Rakes, presented her first set with the declaration that “pretty girls wear pearls.”
“I fell in love with them ever since,” Wilson says. “I just love the look of them.”
At a recent gathering with media, Wilson wore a bulky white pearl bracelet, a pair of pink pearl earrings, then lifted her shirt to show off a couple of pink belly button pearls.
Wilson gets most of her pearls from her mother, Eva, who sells jewelry.