COLUMBIA — They’ve reached the Final Four, they’ve joined an exclusive circle of programs to win three consecutive league titles, and Sunday they completed their first undefeated season in the SEC. For the South Carolina women’s basketball team, only a national championship remains.
The Gamecocks now resume that pursuit in earnest, after a 75-39 rout of LSU which made USC just the second SEC program to complete an unbeaten run through a 16-game league schedule. Tiffany Mitchell scored 24 in the final regular-season appearance at Colonial Life Arena for a senior class which over the past four years has won a school-record 116 games.
Joining Tennessee’s 2011 squad as the lone SEC teams to finish 16-0 was a fitting way to go out. “It’s something our seniors wanted to do, since we were that close,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “I think it’s a tribute to what they mean to our program. The historical run they’ve put us on, I think this kind of caps it off, because this is something we haven’t done.”
Third-ranked South Carolina (28-1, 16-0 SEC) will be back on its home floor in late March for the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, almost certainly as a No. 1 seed. First comes the SEC Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., where top-seeded USC opens in a quarterfinal at noon Friday against either No. 8 seed Missouri or No. 9 seed Auburn.
“We’re not done,” Staley told the crowd after the game. A second straight SEC tournament crown would likely lock up a preferred NCAA regional destination — in this case, Lexington, Ky. — for a South Carolina squad trying to return to the Final Four.
“I think they’re very focused,” Staley said of her team. “They’re focused in on the task at hand. The task at hand was winning, being 16-0 in this league, actually doing it. It’s the kind of focus that you need if you’re trying to win the national championship. Because it doesn’t get any easier. It gets a lot harder as we take each step.”
Mitchell and fellow seniors Khadijah Sessions and Tina Roy all drained 3s in a 22-4 second-quarter run that put USC in control. A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates came off the bench to combine for 24 points, and the Gamecocks held LSU (9-20, 3-13) to two field goals in each of the second and third quarters.
“We knew what we were up against when we came to South Carolina,” said LSU head coach Nikki Fargas. “An amazing crowd, an unbelievable atmosphere for my young team to experience. We got a chance to play one of the best teams in the country, who potentially could win a national championship.”
In the fourth quarter Staley pulled her seniors one by one, each of them receiving a standing ovation from the crowd of 16,240. The last to leave the game was Mitchell, the first-team All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year, who embraced Staley when she reached the bench.
“There was a lot of emotion in this game — before the game, after the game with my family and friends,” Mitchell said. “It was a really emotional day. I was trying to just perform as best I could for them, and for our fans as well for supporting me for my four years.”
Over those four years, USC improved from 11-5 to 14-2 to 15-1 to now 16-0 in the SEC. Now, the most successful senior class in Gamecocks women’s basketball history prepares for one last postseason push.
“We accomplished one of our goals for the season, but we’re not done at all,” Mitchell said. “We still have a lot more we want to accomplish.”