USC clinches share of SEC crown

Tiffany Mitchell (right) scored 16 points to lead No. 2 South Carolina past No. 11 Mississippi State on Thursday.

The night belonged to South Carolina’s three seniors. But the game belonged to junior Tiffany Mitchell.

The reigning SEC Player of the Year certainly looked like it Thursday, scoring 16 to carry the second-ranked Gamecocks past No. 11 Mississippi State, 69-50. The victory before a crowd of 15,047 clinched at least a share of USC’s second straight SEC title, and guaranteed South Carolina the top seed in the league tournament next week.

The Gamecocks (27-1, 15-0 SEC) can clinch the title outright in their regular-season finale Sunday at No. 13 Kentucky. Although USC beat No. 6 Tennessee on Monday, a loss in Lexington would force South Carolina to share the title should the Lady Volunteers win their last game against Vanderbilt. The head-to-head tiebreaker impacts only the top conference tournament seed.

“I think for where our program is trying to go, it would be a step in the wrong direction if we don’t take care of business on the road against Kentucky,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “We want to win. We’ve put ourselves in this position. And we don’t want to have a letdown.”

Regardless, USC will still hang another conference title banner in Colonial Life Area to match the one it added prior to this season. Thursday’s victory was also USC’s 32nd at home, tying a school record set from 1977-80, and 15th in SEC play, the most ever in a single season for the Gamecocks.

“You play that game they lost here, it’s probably a different outcome,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schafer, referring to USC’s lone loss at No. 1 Connecticut. “I think they’re dang good, y’all. ... I hope I don’t get in their (NCAA tournament) bracket, that’s all I’m telling you. And whoever the other 15 are — you ain’t going to be happy.”

South Carolina’s three seniors — reserve guard Olivia Gaines, starting center Elem Ibiam and starting forward Aleighsa Welch from Goose Creek — were honored in a ceremony prior to the game. Welch fell hard going up for a rebound with 9:24 remaining in the first half, and returned to the floor five minutes later after receiving treatment in the training room.

With Welch out, Mississippi State (25-5, 10-5) cut the lead to three. But the Bulldogs couldn’t contain Mitchell, who scored seven straight points to key a 12-2 run which pushed the lead into double digits, and the Bulldogs never got closer than 10 after that.

“Aleighsa’s a big part of this team, so it’s hard to see one of the main pieces to this puzzle go down,” Mitchell said. “So I just tried to rally the troops and put the gas to the floor.”

Mitchell’s points came against MSU’s Dominique Dillingham, whom Schafer called his best defender. “Tiffany Mitchell, there’s a reason she was player of the year last year,” he added. “She was just a tough matchup for us early, and I think that really bothered us some.”

Welch played 25 minutes and finished with four points and six rebounds in her final regular-season home game. “Our doctors would not have cleared her to come back if she felt any kind of pain,” Staley said. “I know tomorrow she’ll be feeling a little bit sore.”

It was Gaines, best known for the steal that set up A’ja Wilson’s game-winner at Duke on Dec. 7, who made the biggest impact among the seniors Thursday night. The former junior college standout scored nine points, but more importantly hounded Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State’s leading scorer. Vivians finished with 14, but worked hard for every one.

“That kid tried to come out and set a tone,” Schaefer said. “Victoria got loose and made some shots with her right there. In the old days you’d say, what’s the flavor of gum she’s chewing? I guarantee, the Gaines kid could tell her.”

It was far from perfect — USC turned the ball over 16 times, missed eight free throws and struggled to get the Bulldogs off the boards in the first half. But it was another victory for a team eyeing a title even bigger than the one it claimed a part of Thursday night.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet,” Mitchell said. “That’s probably going to come later in March and in April.” And the only games in April are in the Final Four.