Not idle worship for USC freshman Mitchell

She is hoping to duplicate the success of her childhood idol — Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley

Special to The StateJanuary 23, 2013 

  • Gamecocks vs. Wildcats WHO: No. 18 USC (16-3, 4-2 SEC) vs. No. 5 Kentucky (18-1, 6-0) WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday WHERE: Colonial Life Arena TV: SportsSouth RADIO: WISW-AM, 1320

When Tiffany Mitchell was in the fifth grade, she could recite every fact about Dawn Staley’s life and career. After she met the South Carolina women’s basketball coach for the first time on a recruiting visit, Tiffany gushed about how Staley had hugged her.

Now a freshman guard for USC, Tiffany, a starter all season and the second-leading scorer on the team, is learning first hand from her childhood idol.

“I was scared to talk to her for the first time because I thought, ‘There’s no way Dawn Staley wants me to play for her,’ ” Tiffany said. “I had to get used to looking at her as a coach instead of me as a fan of hers.”

Tiffany’s admiration of Staley started not long after her basketball career did. Growing up in Charlotte, Tiffany’s older brother and cousin both played basketball, but she didn’t have interest at first. Once she saw the trophies her brother would bring home from basketball tournaments, Tiffany wanted to do the same.

Tiffany’s mother, Cheryl Mitchell, put Tiffany in a local basketball league, but since there wasn’t a girls’ team in the area, she was the only girl on a boys’ team. After two years, she joined a girls’ AAU team.

“I have this platform in my house that has all of their trophies there,” Cheryl said. “From time to time, she would come and count to make sure she had more trophies than my son.”

Cheryl and her godmother would take her to see the Charlotte Sting, a WNBA team, and it was there that Tiffany found her idol.

Small in stature at the time, Tiffany related to the Sting’s point guard, Staley, and would YouTube Staley’s highlights from college and try to mimic them in her driveway. Cheryl said Tiffany could recite Staley’s birthday and other facts when she was still in elementary.

For one birthday, all Tiffany asked for was Staley’s Charlotte Sting jersey. She waited for Staley after one game to sign it, framing the jersey and hanging it up in her bedroom.

“In fifth grade, I had a project on who my favorite basketball player was and my inspiration, and I did it on coach Staley,” Tiffany said. “I just kind of always followed her journey and her path. I just wanted to follow in her footsteps.”

Staley didn’t remember 10-year-old Tiffany. Staley became a fan of Tiffany’s when Tiffany was competing for an AAU team in Georgia.

The recruiting process for Tiffany started in eighth grade, when she got her first offer. Eventually, she was offered by most programs from the SEC and ACC. Cheryl created a filing system in a crate for Tiffany’s offers with folders and a separate notebook for the schools Tiffany was more interested in, such as Texas and Kentucky.

South Carolina didn’t make the notebook initially.

The Gamecocks weren’t a traditionally strong program. Mitchell said she forgot about how much she idolized Staley for most of the recruiting process, though when Cheryl and Tiffany visited USC, Cheryl said Tiffany couldn’t contain her excitement on the drive home about how great it was for her to talk to Staley.

Staley’s jersey is still framed in Tiffany’s room, and Tiffany said there’s a poster of Staley in her brother’s room next to NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. Tiffany laughed when thinking back on Staley’s visit to her home.

“I think it almost brought tears to (Staley’s) eyes,” Cheryl said. “She was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

Tiffany liked the upward trajectory USC was on and committed as a junior.

Staley said it’s Tiffany’s love of basketball and commitment that reminds her of herself.

“When I’m bored, I come to the gym,” Tiffany said. “If I’m not sleeping or eating, I’m pretty much in the gym. I guess that’s how you explain a basketball junkie.”

Senior point guard Ieasia Walker said Tiffany was fearless during summer pickup games, unafraid to attack the basket against a veteran player and having a confidence that’s rare in freshmen.

She has averaged 29.2 minutes per game as the only freshman starter, with 10.4 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game. On Monday, she was named the SEC Freshman of the Week for the second time this season.

Tiffany’s years as a Gamecock will be crucial for her childhood dream of becoming a professional basketball player. She now has a coach that’s accomplished everything Tiffany longs to.

“It’s always a wonderful thing to have someone who idolizes you actually play for you,” Staley said. “It’s a win-win. We won because we got Tiffany Mitchell, and she won in that she has an opportunity to play and do some big things at South Carolina.”

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