USC eyes perfect SEC run

All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell is part of the most successful senior class in South Carolina women's basketball history. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

COLUMBIA — Tiffany Mitchell committed to South Carolina when she was a junior in high school, well before the Gamecocks had become the juggernaut they are now. That year, head coach Dawn Staley’s third with the program, USC went 8-8 in SEC play and finished in the Women’s NIT.

“They lost to Charlotte,” recalled Mitchell, a native of the Queen City. “I remember that.”

How different things are now, as Mitchell and four other seniors ready for their final regular season home game at 2 p.m. Sunday against LSU. Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, Asia Dozier, Tina Roy and graduate transfer Sarah Imovbioh comprise the most successful class in USC women’s basketball history, with 115 career victories. They can cap that run by becoming just the second team to finish the SEC regular season at 16-0.

“Coming in with high hopes, being program-changers, this is a group that worked hard for four years,” said Dozier, from Columbia. “Just watching the growth of our team and our program means the world to us.”

Head coach Dawn Staley set her cornerstone by attracting a 2011 freshman class which included Goose Creek’s Aleighsa Welch, the first girls’ state player of the year to choose USC in a decade, and Roy, who took a medical redshirt as a sophomore. The big recruiting breakthrough came the following year, with the additions of state player of the year Dozier and Parade All-Americans Mitchell and Sessions.

Mitchell, Sessions, Dozier and Roy have combined to start 309 games, and over the past three seasons have won more games than any other SEC program in a similar span. Their overall winning percentage stands at a school-record 87.1 entering Sunday’s finale against the Tigers (9-19, 3-12 SEC).

“They made the commitment sort of at a time when we hadn’t taken off,” Staley said. “So they believed in what this program could become. And then they put the work into making it something truly special. It’s going to be a hard group to replace, a hard group to duplicate some of the things that they’ve done. But they’re leaving it in great hands. It’s set up for our program to be successful for a long time.”

It’s become much more than Staley ever envisioned, with USC leading the nation in average attendance for two seasons straight. What was her recruiting pitch before the program had broken through? “We’re right there,” Staley said. “You’re the pieces that will take this program to the next level. … We made believers out of everybody.”

Including Mitchell, now a first-team All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year. “I’d kind of been following the program since I was 16 years old,” she said. “Coach Staley told me she was going to bring the people in here to change the program around, put the pieces (together) into something that was going to be unstoppable. I think we’re at a good place right now.”

The numbers certainly bear that out. The third-ranked Gamecocks (27-1, 15-0) have become one of just three programs to win three straight SEC titles, and Sunday can join the 2011 Tennessee squad as just the second SEC team to run the table in a 16-game conference season. It would be yet another accolade for a senior class that was born from a WNIT appearance and fueled USC’s rise to the national elite.

“This is going to be a special moment for us. We like making history here,” said Sessions, a Myrtle Beach native. “… We probably can’t see it or feel it right now, but when we look back and graduate, we’re going to appreciate these moments here.”