COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tiffany Mitchell had another player-of-the-year performance to bring No. 2 South Carolina another Southeastern Conference title.
The Gamecocks, behind Mitchell’s 16 points, ran past No. 11 Mississippi State 69-50 on Thursday night to remain perfect in the SEC and clinch a share of the crown they won for the first time a year ago.
Then a sophomore, Mitchell was voted SEC player of the year — and has done little to give away that title this season.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this league that can do what she does on the offensive and defensive side of the ball,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said with pride.
That was apparent. She had seven straight points as South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) took control with an 18-5 run with less than six minutes left in the opening half. Mitchell had two of her three steals in that stretch, which saw the Gamecocks go from ahead three points to up by 16 at 39-23.
“It’s a great feeling to clinch a share” of the SEC title, Mitchell said. “But like coach Staley says, I’m greedy. I don’t want to share.”
South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) can win the title outright Sunday — and match the 2011 Tennessee team as the only 16-0 champs in SEC history — with a win at No. 13 Kentucky. They would also claim the crown alone should the Lady Vols fall Sunday against Vanderbilt.
No matter what happens, South Carolina heads to next week’s SEC tournament as the No. 1 seed and team to beat.
Staley’s biggest worry? Avoiding the letdown that took place a year ago after wrapping up the SEC championship. The Gamecocks lost the next game at Tennessee and got bounced out earlier than expected in the SEC tournament and at the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed.
“I think for where our program is trying to go, it would take a step in the wrong direction if we don’t take care of business on the road against Kentucky,” Staley said.
The Bulldogs (25-5, 10-5) could not cut the lead to fewer than 10 points after South Carolina’s decisive run. Victoria Vivians and LaKaris Salter had 14 points each to lead Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs were held to their fewest points this season and shot less than 35 percent from the field for the third time in their past five games. Salter, a freshman forward, gave Mississippi State a jolt as she hit four of five 3-pointers after entering in the final six minutes.
Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer was disappointed by his team’s shortcoming, but admired South Carolina’s physical style.
“That’s my kind of team,” he said. “I told the referees, ‘I wish you didn’t have to call'” any fouls.
South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, the 6-foot-5 forward contending with Vivians for SEC freshman of the year, had 13 points and seven rebounds. Alaina Coates, last year’s league freshman of the year, added 10 points and seven boards.
Mitchell also had four rebounds, three steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
South Carolina senior forward Aleighsa Welch, who had 19 points and 14 rebounds in Monday night’s win over No. 6 Tennessee, was shaken up after a hard fall to the court. She went to the locker room briefly before returning to action. Staley said Welch will probably be sore Friday, but it should not keep her from playing at Kentucky.
Little-used reserve Olivia Gaines got her second career start — she’s one of three seniors for South Carolina — and answered in a big way with a career-high nine points in 22 minutes. She also played stellar defense on Vivians, forcing her into several early missed shots as the Gamecocks moved in front.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have set records for most wins in a season (25) and most road wins (seven). Their 10 SEC victories are tied for the most in school history.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have won 32 straight at home, tying the school record set between 1977 and 1980.
Mississippi State: Closes the regular season at home Sunday against state rival Mississippi State.
South Carolina: Last regular-season game Sunday at No. 13 Kentucky.
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