In Final Four, South Carolina’s Mitchell receives her toughest job yet

South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell shoots during a practice session Saturday for the NCAA women's Final Four. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The women’s Final Four ramped into high gear Saturday, when house music thumped and pep bands blared as each team walked through something resembling practice. The din quieted briefly as the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association introduced its All-American squad — which included South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell and Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd, who lined up next to one another for the group photo.

They’ll get quite accustomed to that kind of proximity Sunday night. Mitchell carried South Carolina into these national semifinals, clearing the Gamecocks’ path to Amalie Arena with her game-winner in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina and seven straight points in the Elite Eight against Florida State. Now USC will again call on the two-time SEC Player of the Year, who will face perhaps her toughest assignment — and not on the offensive end — when South Carolina tips off against Notre Dame at 6:30 p.m.

Lost amid her offensive outburst against Florida State was the fact that Mitchell also shut down Seminoles star guard Leticia Romero, who was limited to one field goal in the last five minutes of the Greensboro Regional final. Mitchell isn’t just USC’s go-to scorer — she’s also the Gamecocks’ top perimeter defender, and South Carolina’s hopes of cutting down the nets in Tampa begin with how effectively she can slow her All-American counterpart Loyd.

“I’ll probably start out on her,” Mitchell said. “We’ll decide over the course of the games how things go — whether I get in foul trouble, or something like that, then we might switch it up. But for the most part, I’ll probably be guarding her.”

That’s no small task, given that Loyd averages 19.9 points per game and put up 30-plus on both Tennessee and Connecticut. She’s of similar build, similar game and similar mentality to Mitchell, with whom she became friends last year while both were members of USA Basketball’s three-on-three world championship team. “I think we both have the same mindset of attacking,” said the Notre Dame junior. And Mitchell will have the mindset of stopping her, which is nothing new for the USC star.

“I think that’s probably one of the most overlooked categories in her game, her ability to stop people,” said USC guard Khadijah Sessions. “Tiffany plays the best player, in and out, on every single team, every night. She’s the best player on our team, and people don’t see how hard she works on the defensive end. But she’s an extremely hard worker on both ends of the floor.”

Mitchell’s game-changing abilities on offense are always evident, never more so than in this NCAA Tournament. But South Carolina (34-2) is a program with its roots in defense, which is what head coach Dawn Staley leaned on before she was able to attract highly skilled scorers to Columbia. Now she can, but those core defensive principles remain engrained.

“Coach Staley puts a lot of pride in us being able to get stops,” Mitchell said. “... It is kind of hard, playing the best player on the other team and then still trying to be productive for our team. But I think that goes back to coach Staley having confidence in me to handle both.”

That’s evident in the minutes Mitchell logs per game, which included 38 against North Carolina and 40 against Florida State. Mitchell said she may feel the wear and tear afterward, but adrenaline usually carries her when she’s on the floor. Staley has long called Mitchell USC’s best-conditioned player, and it shows in the pivotal roles the junior from Charlotte plays on both ends late in games — and often with the Gamecocks counting on her to produce.

“She keeps herself in shape,” said USC forward Aleighsa Welch, from Goose Creek. “Tiffany is somebody who year-round is always concentrating on her body. She’s somebody who always gets the necessary treatment, she’s somebody who always is in the gym, who takes her weightlifting seriously. She’s always in shape. She’s always ready for anything that’s thrown at her. So when we do need her to play 38, 39 minutes a game, she’s there for us. And when we do need her to make stops for us 35 minutes into the game, she’s there for us.”

Notre Dame (35-2) will likely also have Loyd guarding Mitchell, making for a star-power matchup of two of the nation’s best players. “Whoever wins that matchup might ultimately win the game,” said Debbie Antonelli, a Mount Pleasant resident and broadcaster calling the Final Four for Westwood One radio. “I think that matchup is that important.”

Neither player is backing away from a one-on-one duel which could determine who competes for the national championship Tuesday night. “You want good basketball,” Loyd said. “You want good competition all the way around, so you want the challenge.”

Asked if the competitor in her wanted to guard Loyd, Mitchell flashed a broad smile.

“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “I’m always a competitive person, so that’s a great matchup. Me and Jewel played USA Basketball (last) year together, so I kind of know what she does a little bit. But it’s going to be fun. It’s a great matchup, and I’m ready for it.”