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Mitchell, her WNBA idol Staley lead Gamecocks to Final Four

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Cheryl Mitchell wasn’t sure what project her third grade daughter was working on when she asked to go to the store to pick up poster board. Tiffany Mitchell created a collage of WNBA star Dawn Staley — beginning a trek that’s landed the South Carolina coach and Gamecocks standout in the school’s first Final Four.

Mitchell’s shown she’s every bit as skilled as her idol.

She scored the go-ahead basket to beat North Carolina 67-65 in the Sweet 16, then followed that with seven straight points to put the Gamecocks ahead for good in an 80-74 victory over Florida State in the Elite Eight.

Now the AP All-American and the rest of Staley’s Gamecocks (34-2) square off against Notre Dame (35-2) in the national semifinals Sunday night in Tampa, Florida. The winner will play whoever advances in the Maryland-UConn matchup in the other semifinal.

Staley believes Mitchell is set to have another strong performance on the game’s biggest stage.

“She’s not a settler,” the coach said. “Like, ‘People out there think someone’s better than me, so I’m going to show them.’ She’s up for the challenge.”

Mitchell’s has always been able to rise and meet most challenges when it comes basketball, her mother said. Her youngest child had tried and given up many youth sports before mixing it up with older boys on basketball courts throughout their Charlotte, North Carolina neighborhood.

Mitchell quickly outshined most players on the court and became a standout in AAU basketball. When they could, the family would attend Charlotte Sting games with Tiffany fixated on Staley.

Then came the recruiting letters and interest from Staley. And when the two finally met in person, “Tiffany was mesmerized,” Cheryl Mitchell said.

She knew where her daughter’s college focus was when she continually wanted to spend Saturday’s down in Columbia around Staley, her assistants and her players.

Mitchell committed to South Carolina during her junior year at Providence Day School.

Staley liked what she’d seen, yet wasn’t sure how the quiet Mitchell would fit in at college. Mitchell had talent, loved basketball like Staley did and worked hard in high school. But the coach wasn’t fully convinced how special she’d be for the Gamecocks.

“Tiffany is self-motivated. When you see how much she was in the gym her first year, that’s when you go, ‘Aha, she’s the one that’s going to take us to higher heights,'” Staley said.

Mitchell started 30 of 33 games her freshman season, helping the Gamecocks to their second straight trip to the Sweet 16 in 2013. She became the team’s unquestioned leader a year later, averaging 15.5 points a game and earning Southeastern Conference player of the year honors as South Carolina won its first-ever league championship.

This season, Mitchell excelled again at 14.5 points a game and earned her second-consecutive SEC player of the year award despite being the focus of every opponent’s defensive game plan. It’s that drive, Staley said, that puts Mitchell among the best in women’s basketball.

Mitchell focus is only on this weekend, a destination and opportunity the Gamecocks have pointed too all year long.

“That’s been our ultimate goal and our main gain this season,” Mitchell said. “I think it would be a bit of a letdown if we didn’t get” the national championship.

Mitchell’s star is on the rise.

She’s the program’s first AP All-American and is a finalist for the Wooden Award. Cheryl Mitchell recalled getting a call last week from Tiffany saying how she was being “attacked” by fans and autograph seekers at a gas station.

“That’s a good thing, right?” Cheryl told her daughter.

It is, for both South Carolina and the low-key, Mitchell — even if she does shun being the center of attention.

“Tiffany works the hardest when the spotlight’s not on her,” teammate Aleighsa Welch said. “When you have a superstar like that who gives her teammates more credit than she gives herself, it’s humbling and it makes everybody on the team want to work a little bit harder.”

Staley still jokes with Mitchell about the signed Staley jerseys and cut out pictures of her future coach. But always the competitor, Staley paid Mitchell probably her highest compliment when talking about getting on the court with her.

“Truth is,” Staley said, “I would love to step outside and see me play and compare it with what Tiffany’s doing in her career.”

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