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Tiffany Mitchell helps lead South Carolina to back-to-back SEC titles

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Dawn Staley Postgame Interview (1:23)

Dawn Staley Postgame Interview (1:23)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Tiffany Mitchell couldn't help it. She's not necessarily the most demonstrative player, and emoting before the game is over is not her style. But when her last points in an SEC tournament came with a 3-pointer late in Sunday's league championship game, she just had to let go with a little celebratory shake-your-groove-thing.

"I don't know what that dance was," Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley joked later.

Let's just call it the dance of the back-to-back SEC champions. The top-seeded Gamecocks, who ran the table during the regular season in SEC play at 16-0, took home their second consecutive league tournament crown, beating No. 3 seed Mississippi State 66-52.

"It means a great deal," Staley said of winning this title two years in a row. "We put our names in the history book in this traditionally rich conference."

Mitchell and A'ja Wilson each had 19 points Sunday, a showcase for the women who, between them, have the last three SEC player of the year awards. The senior Mitchell won that honor in 2014 and '15, and the sophomore Wilson took it this season.

It seemed evident that for South Carolina to take yet another step forward this year after a breakthrough 2014-15 Women's Final Four season, the 6-foot-5 superstar-in-the-making Wilson had to emerge as the dominant scorer. And that has happened.

But it meant a little different role for Mitchell, whose scoring is still very valuable. In fact, South Carolina can't win without her. However, she had to change her mindset a bit in regard to when and where she looked for her shot. It hasn't always been easy, but it's a testament to Mitchell's mentality that she committed herself to figuring it out.

"My season has been, from my point of view, kind of up and down. ... It just felt good being able to accomplish being undefeated in SEC play. And playing well, or at least more to my standards, in this tournament."

Gamecocks senior Tiffany Mitchell

"My season has been, from my point of view, kind of up and down," said Mitchell, which is a bit of a harsh assessment for someone averaging 15.0 points. "I haven't been as consistent as I wanted. At the end of the game, it just felt good being able to accomplish being undefeated in SEC play. And playing well, or at least more to my standards, in this tournament.

"It was nice to just kind of release everything, and that last shot put the icing on the cake."

Sunday, the Gamecocks were not able to play the kind of game that they had in Saturday's 93-63 scorefest semifinal against Kentucky. Mississippi State, coached by defensive whiz Vic Schaefer, just wouldn't let that happen. The Bulldogs might not have been able to defend quite as well as they wanted, but they stayed within striking distance most of the way.

It was only the second time Mississippi State has appeared in the SEC championship game -- and the first was in 2000, when today's players were little kids. Mississippi State has become a force in the SEC in Schaefer's four seasons in Starkville, and the Bulldogs are probably going to be handful in the NCAA tournament.

But they couldn't stop the forward momentum of the Gamecocks, who are 31-1, their only loss coming Feb. 8 against No. 1-ranked UConn.

Mitchell had a combined 47 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in South Carolina's three victories here, earning her SEC tournament MVP honors. Wilson, who had a combined 45 points, 27 rebounds and 9 blocks, was also on the all-tournament team.

However, this was not just a championship won by the team's best players, but by all of its players. Junior center Alaina Coates had double-doubles against Auburn and Kentucky. And while she scored only four points against the Bulldogs, she had eight rebounds and really helped keep Mississippi's post offense under wraps.

And special notice goes not only to Mitchell, Wilson and Coates, but also to senior guard Khadijah Sessions. She hit big shots against both Kentucky and Mississippi State -- scoring 10 points and 11 points, respectively, in those games -- along with being such a key defensive cog for the Gamecocks.

At the start of the fourth quarter Sunday, Mitchell looked over at Sessions and gave her an assignment. All game, Mitchell had been chasing Mississippi State star Victoria Vivians -- who finished with 26 points -- and she needed a bit of a break.

"Tiffany told me, 'Go guard her,' " said Sessions, who didn't let Vivians score again. "She had confidence in me that I would be able to do that for the rest of way. That trust between us has built over the years, and I feel last year, it really became strong. Tiffany always believes in me, and I always believe in her.

"She probably doesn't know this, but she's my favorite player to play with. I am really going to miss her."

When she got her hands on the championship trophy, Sessions felt a swirling mix of feelings -- the kind of thing every senior basketball player can relate to, win or lose, when the calendar turns to March.

"I wanted to cry, but I held it together," Sessions said. "It was just so emotional, doing this with my fellow seniors and playing in front of Gamecock nation and for coach Staley. I'll probably cry later, though. It's a great feeling, but I don't want to leave. Because I know this program is so much on the rise, and has so many special things ahead."

She's certainly not exiting just yet, though. The Gamecocks are going to be a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, and will be hosts for the early-round games at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.

"Our job is not done," Sessions said. "This was just one of the things we were trying to achieve: to be undefeated in SEC play. We are just going to keep pushing."