*This article originally appeared on WNBA.com.
WNBA vet Dawn Staley has led a women’s basketball renaissance in Columbia, S.C., and guard Tiffany Mitchell was at the heart of it during her four collegiate seasons. The Charlotte native won nine games over that span, including a run at the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance.
Though she fell short of reaching the NCAA summit, Mitchell put together an illustrious college career and translated that success to the WNBA during a stellar rookie season. As she prepares to shoulder a larger load in post-Tamika Catchings era of Indiana Fever history, Mitchell reflected on her time as a Gamecock.
By Tiffany Mitchell, as told to WNBA.com
Growing up, I always watched the NCAA Tournament and always dreamed about going to the Final Four. Actually getting there when I was at South Carolina was surreal.
We started off with a small fan base my first year, but by the end of my career we led the country in attendance. Our fans are incredible and they made the experience that much better. And Coach Staley put us in a position to be successful. She came to South Carolina to change the whole program around.
I can still vividly remember every game from our Final Four run. I remember the game clock and the score and the plays that put us over the top; it’s kind of scary out vividly I can remember things. In the Sweet Sixteen, we were losing the whole game to North Carolina and we came back in the last minute on a prayer shot. Olivia Gaines, who was really not a scorer on our team, had the ball in the corner, and the shot clock was running down. Everyone knew we’d try to get the ball back to me, but it ended up in her hands somehow, and she took the shot. It was like a step-back, fadeaway, corner two-pointer and it bounced off every part of the rim and everyone was like, “Noooo!” And then it went in and everyone was like, “Yesss!”
With like around 20 seconds left, I had the ball in the corner, and I drove to the basket, got a good screen and made a layup to put us up two. In the Florida State game — the Elite Eight game — it was the same scenario where we won in the final moments. We were losing the whole game up until the last few minutes, I scored seven straight points and that was it — the rest was history.
Going into the Final Four, some would say, “Just enjoy the moment and feel lucky that you’re there.” For me, it was the complete opposite: I came in wanting to win. Being around great teams and great players is what I live for and as a competitor, that’s what you want — you want to play with the best players on the biggest stages.
Knowing that we were so close, just two points away from playing in the national championship game, is something I’ll always remember. That Final Four game was back and forth the whole time. And then in the final second… I’m pretty sure everyone in the gym knew that the ball was going to be in my hands. Coach Staley trusted me to take the final shot, but it just didn’t work out. Looking at the clock hit zero and realizing your season is over, that’s a feeling I never want to experience again. To be that close to something and then it’s all taken away from you. Your season is over. That’s how I saw it. I took it harder than anyone on the team because I hate to lose.
Getting to the the Final Four takes some luck, some preparation, the right coaching and the right players. It was hard. Even though it didn’t end like we wanted it to, I look back on the experience as more sweet than bitter. A lot of people didn’t expect us to be there, but we felt like we could do it, no matter what anyone thought. It was a fairy tale season, really.
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