When South Carolina’s woman’s basketball team tips off its season Friday against Elon at Colonial Life Arena, the biggest thing to keep an eye on is how five newcomers perform under pressure.
They had a fine coming-out party in their 57-point exhibition victory over Anderson on Sunday with Asia Dozier, Khadijah Sessions and Tiffany Mitchell each scoring in double figures.
Dawn Staley understands there will be freshmen moments but also believes a lot of the Gamecocks’ success will fall on the highly touted group. They will need to contribute early and often as USC replaces four starters off last year’s 25-win, Sweet 16 team.
Mitchell, the only one to draw a start in the exhibition, knew those types of expectations would be in store for this group.
“Everyone knows we’re a young team, so they expect us to contribute to the team and do what (Staley) asks and play a big role,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell earned the starting role because of her defensive presence. But she can also score in bunches. She was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in North Carolina and a Parade All-American for her play at Providence Day in Charlotte. Mitchell, a 5-foot-9 guard, averaged 16.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in her senior season that she capped off by winning her third straight North Carolina Independent Athletic Association Schools Class 3A title.
But Staley has asked her to define her role by making solid decisions on the offensive end.
“Tiffany Mitchell is explosive,” Staley said. “I really think we are holding her back a little bit. But we don’t want her to go back to her Providence Day days where she feels like she has to take all the shots. We need to know where those shots are coming from because we have great rebounders. We’re always talking to her about shot selection. We want her to take good, on-balance shots. That way she can grow with how we need her to play.”
Mitchell came in during the summer and was a little surprised she earned a starting role.
“I didn’t know I was going to be starting,” Mitchell said. “I just did as coach said all summer and the preseason. She told me they wanted quickness on the wing and defensive pressure, so I think that is one reason I am starting.”
The biggest adjustment she’s had to make is getting used to the physical nature of the college game.
“I was used to having fouls called for me all the time in high school,” Mitchell said. “Here ticky-tacky fouls aren’t going to be called for me.”
Staley also has plenty of pieces that played key roles last year. Ashley Bruner and Aleighsa Welch provided quality minutes in the post coming off the bench but they are going to be counted on in a starting role in the Gamecocks’ three guard lineup.
Sancheon White will start at one of the guard spots along with Mitchell, while four-year starter Ieasia Walker returns to run the point.
Elon is coming off of a 16-14 season and is coached by Charlotte Smith, a former teammate of Staley’s. The Phoenix have four starters returning and are led by point guard Ali Ford, an first-team All-Southern Conference selection a year ago.
“Elon will be a good first game for us,” Staley said. “They are projected to win their conference, so they’ll be some good competition. We have to made sure we come out ready to go. They have a few players that could be problematic for us.”