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South Carolina seniors Mitchell, Sessions savoring the moment

Khadijah Sessions and Tiffany Mitchell have guided South Carolina to the No. 2 ranking and a 21-0 start. USA TODAY Sports

For as fast a pace as these two prefer to play, South Carolina guards Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions would like to somehow put the coming days and weeks into a kind of slow motion. The better to relish and appreciate it all.

The common lament of seniors is that when the finish line is in sight for them, it's the last thing they want to see. Yet, it's the transient nature of moments that can make them so precious.

The No. 2 Gamecocks led the nation in attendance last season and are at the top again this season, averaging 14,511 per home game. A program that was still trying to compete in the SEC when Mitchell and Sessions were high school seniors in 2011-12 is now one of the major players on the national scene in women's college basketball.

"Being from South Carolina, this means so much to me," said Sessions, a native of Myrtle Beach. "This has always been a football state. So you wonder growing up, 'Will it ever be about women's basketball?' because that's what you love so much.

"To see the fan base grow to the way it is now has been one of the most amazing things in my life."

"We thought we were [ready], but we weren't. ... When you're actually playing against so much efficiency, just being in that moment, it's really hard to do."

South Carolina's Khadijah Sessions on last year's 87-62 loss to UConn

Sessions and Mitchell are trying to absorb it all and then file it into that vivid section of long-term memory ... while also attempting not to be overwhelmed by the emotions and difficult tasks ahead. There already have been plenty, with more to come. The Gamecocks have an SEC matchup with visiting Kentucky on Thursday (SEC Network, 7 p.m. ET), and then their long-anticipated showdown with No. 1 UConn on Big Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) at Colonial Life Arena.

The game against the Huskies will be the most spotlighted women's basketball game -- and perhaps women's sports event of any kind -- ever in the Palmetto state. This is the vision coach Dawn Staley had when she took the job eight years ago, and it's what she sold to incoming recruits: "Come be a part of building this. I have the blueprint."

The Gamecocks started at 10-18 overall and 2-12 in the SEC in Staley's first season, 2008-09, and have improved both records every year since. They were 34-3 and 15-1 last season when they made their first trip to the Women's Final Four.

This season, South Carolina is 21-0 and 9-0, and sophomore A'ja Wilson is the Gamecocks' leading scorer at 16.6 PPG. Wilson (9.3 RPG) and junior Alaina Coates (9.9) are the team's top rebounders, with Coates adding a 12.2 scoring average. They are a dynamic pair inside who -- in a perfect, storybook way -- are also from greater Columbia. The Gamecocks would not be where they are without either of these hometown sensations.

Yet this year's senior class is such a large component to all of what this program has become. Along with Sessions and Mitchell, who is the two-time SEC player of the year and was a first-team All-American last season, guards Asia Dozier and Tina Roy are seniors who've spent their college careers with Staley. Forward Sarah Imovbioh is also in her senior season at South Carolina after previously playing at Virginia.

"We've been in crunch-time situations before, and I think we kind of know how to handle those things," Mitchell said. "And we try to get the younger ones ready for when we leave. We try to take a championship mindset to everything we do, so that when we're gone, the legacy will still be here."

Mitchell is from Charlotte, North Carolina, about 90 miles north of Columbia. Roy is actually in her fifth year, having redshirted 2012-13 because of a knee injury. She is from Kaplan, Louisiana, about 165 miles west of New Orleans. Imovbioh is from Abuja, Nigeria.

And Dozier is another local kid, having attended Spring Valley High School in Columbia, just 14 miles from Colonial Life Arena. Dozier's father and uncle both played basketball at South Carolina, as does her younger brother now: Perry Dozier Jr. is a freshman starter for the Gamecocks.

Sessions, Mitchell, Roy and Dozier are all captains for Staley this season. And when you jokingly ask Sessions which one of them might be the last one standing if they were all in a season of "Survivor," Sessions gives an immediate answer -- and also very well sums up the strengths of the four captains.

"It would be Asia," Sessions said of her projected winner. "Tiffany Mitchell is somebody who can just take over a game and is a great leader that way. Me, I'm all over the place, playing defense, and trying to get Coach Staley's message across to everybody, because that's my job as a point guard.

"Tina, she's doing her thing as a 3-point shooter, and she says what she needs to, as well. But Asia is the one who is like a coach -- she keeps everybody organized, and she can break down the game to little details. That's what people probably don't see -- how much she notices things; she's talking constantly and helping everybody really understand what's going on."

"To see the fan base grow to the way it is now has been one of the most amazing things in my life."

South Carolina senior Khadijah Sessions

The seniors all have had their moments in the clutch during games this season. Mitchell is the team's second-leading scorer (15.2 PPG) and the kind of dynamic guard who so often has the ball in her hands at the most crucial times. She will hear her name called early at the WNBA draft in April.

South Carolina isn't that much of a 3-point shooting team, but Roy (44 3-pointers) and Mitchell (36) can deliver some daggers. Sessions has not been known for her shooting, but this is actually her best season in that regard. She's shooting 49.5 percent from the field (45 of 91) and is tied with Mitchell for the team lead in assists (54). Roy is just behind them with 49 assists, and Dozier has 40.

"A good example is the Mississippi State game," Sessions said of the Gamecocks' 57-51 win in front of 10,000-plus fans in Starkville, Mississippi, on Jan. 24. "Everybody did their part. Sarah got big rebounds. Tina had some big 3's. Asia didn't play but a few minutes in the second half, but then hits two huge free throws at the end."

Sessions didn't mention that in that game, she and Mitchell combined for 13 of the Gamecocks' final 15 points to beat the Bulldogs. But in Sessions' mind, that is just what she and her fellow seniors are supposed to do: feed the two standouts in the paint but also be ready to make their own plays.

Despite their undefeated conference record, the Gamecocks have faced their share of danger in the SEC. Four of their conference victories have been by 10 points or fewer. They beat Kentucky by 11 in January, but remember very well that they split with the Wildcats last season. The SEC peril has kept the Gamecocks from even thinking too much about UConn until that task is at hand.

But they do know that this matchup has been at the forefront of the minds of women's basketball fans, and they also recognize how much playing the Huskies helps them.

"We learned it was a different level of basketball, and they were in a different place as a team," Mitchell said of the takeaway from the Gamecocks' 87-62 loss at UConn last February. "We realized, 'What we're doing is not enough,' and I think that kind of refocused us as far approaching the rest of the season. We looked at the film and were like, 'Look at that!' We'd see the things that we didn't do and they did."

Sessions echoed that sentiment: That playing UConn last season was an invaluable experience in regard to really measuring where the Gamecocks were.

"I don't think we were ready. We thought we were, but we weren't," Sessions said. "You watch them on TV, and people say how efficient they are, and so you think you know that. But then when you're actually playing against so much efficiency, just being in that moment, it's really hard to do.

"They play so well together, and they have great players like Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson. From that game on, we thought that if we face UConn again, we want to see if we can do better against all the things they do well."

The Gamecocks will have that chance Monday, and then more SEC drama, which will culminate in the league tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, in March. And then ...

OK, no. Mitchell and Sessions don't want to think ahead to any of that right now. This experience at South Carolina -- what it means to them and to the people who've fallen in love with the program -- is something they want to savor, each moment, in the present tense. That's what got them here.

"What I'll remember most about this senior class is hard work and dedication, doing whatever it takes," Sessions said. "We understand better now what it takes to try to get to the top."