COLUMBIA - South Carolina coach Dawn Staley grinned widely as she watched her fourth-ranked Gamecocks celebrate their first Southeastern Conference title.
And she believes this team could have even bigger successes ahead.
"When you play in our league and you're the top team in the SEC, it speaks volumes across the country," Staley said Thursday night after South Carolina beat Georgia 67-56 for its 10th straight victory.
Tiffany Mitchell scored a career-high 25 points and Alaina Coates added 18 as the Gamecocks (26-2, 14-1) finished 16-0 at home. South Carolina's other 6-4 forward, Elem Ibiam, had a team-high nine rebounds and five of the team's 11 blocks.
The 26 victories are a high in Staley's six seasons and the most the team has won since going 30-6 in 1979-80.
Staley said earlier this year she was surprised at how quickly a team that lost three senior starters from a year ago jelled to become an SEC contender. As the league's top team, Staley's eager to fine-tune and see how far her players can go.
"I think we're playing extremely well," Staley said. "We like what winning feels like."
Mitchell made sure they held to that feeling against the Bulldogs (18-10, 6-9). She had 16 first-half points while her teammates struggled to get untracked. When Georgia closed within seven points early in the second half, Mitchell had four points in a run that restored South Carolina's double-digit lead.
"I just kind of read the defense," said Mitchell, who topped her previous high of 22 points set against Southern Cal this past November. "I knew we could penetrate on them and get the ball inside."
Mitchell was 7 for 10 from the field and made all 10 of her foul shots. She also added six rebounds and two steals.
Erika Ford had 16 points to lead the Bulldogs, who'll finish with a losing SEC season for just the fourth time in league history.
Georgia coach Andy Landers said his team dug too deep a hole to climb out of.
"We just couldn't make any shots early and whenever we made a run, we couldn't keep it going," he said.
The crowd of 12,458 chanted "S-E-C Champs" as time ran down, celebrating a feat few felt Staley could accomplish when she arrived six years ago.
Georgia cut the lead to 32-25 on Khaalidah Miller's foul shots with 17:18 left in the game, but Khadijah Sessions hit a basket and Mitchell scored the next four points to extend South Carolina's lead to 38-25 two minutes later.
The Bulldogs couldn't get closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Gamecocks players jumped around the court when the horn sounded, slapping hands with fans and hugging each other in celebration. A few moments later, SEC commissioner Mike Slive awarded the trophy to Staley and her team.
"I call him 'The Godfather,' " Staley says, "because he's real soft spoken but a powerful man. It was an honor to have him here."
The Colonial Life Arena had the energy of balloon ready to burst. The local TV stations broadcast live during their newscasts and Staley mixed with fans around the court as the teams took pregame practice.
Georgia's three top scorers in Shacobia Barbee, Miller and Ford were a combined 3 of 16 from the field for seven points in the first half. They improved in the second half, but still finished 12 of 41 shooting.
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