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Modest Mitchell worth talking about

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- They'll be tough moments during a practice at South Carolina, and that's when she does it. Tiffany Mitchell will let loose the wisecrack or dry remark that seems completely inappropriate for everyone's tense mood right at that instant.

Except, it's actually pretty much exactly what everybody needs.

"It comes naturally from her personality; she's a fun person," said her good pal, Gamecocks forward Aleighsa Welch. "She takes basketball very seriously, but she values her teammates, and she's one of the most selfless people you'll meet. She makes everything a fun situation. Even sometimes when it probably shouldn't be. She'll find a way.

"I think she gets a lot of it from her mom, because they're both definitely characters."

However, Mitchell is not a "character" like you might think. She's not a big talker, or someone who says crazy things in news conferences, or wears her considerable sense of humor on her sleeve. She's measured about when she releases it.

In fact, the two-time SEC Player of the Year can get rather quiet and subdued when the conversation turns to ... Tiffany Mitchell.

"Sometimes in Columbia, I'll see people in a restaurant and they'll say, 'Oh, you're Tiffany Mitchell!'" she said, laughing and cringing a little at the same time. "I'm not really a shy person, but I hate talking about myself. And I hate being around when people are talking about me. I kind of just get my work done and keep it moving."

Sorry, Tiffany, but we're going to have to talk about you just the same. People beyond Columbia, South Carolina, are aware of who Tiffany Mitchell is, and even more will find out if the Gamecocks can beat Florida State on Sunday (ESPN/WatchESPN, noon ET) and advance to the program's first Women's Final Four.

Mitchell, a 5-foot-9 junior guard from Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of the country's best players, and she made one of the biggest shots of her career Friday to save the Gamecocks' season.

With the score tied 65-65, Mitchell got the ball on the right wing with one defender to beat. That was North Carolina guard Brittany Rountree, who is no slouch in the speed department. But Mitchell, as she typically does, got around Rountree and was at the basket before the help defense could react. As ESPN analyst and WNBA player Kara Lawson said, "Just put that defender on an island, give Tiffany Mitchell the ball, and she'll make a play."

Indeed, that is an island no defender wants to be stuck on, because odds are, she'll be left stranded.

"It's kind of just a read with how they're playing me," said Mitchell, who finished with 18 points and five assists Friday. "When I was younger, I didn't read the defenders well and just tried to do what I wanted. But now I've learned to also look at the second line [of defense]. Even if I beat my defender, I have to see how the help is going to react."

"If there is a blueprint for becoming an All-American, she has the outline for how you become great at your sport. And it is sacrifice. When you are as balanced and driven as Tiffany Mitchell, you're going to be successful." South Carolina coach Dawn Staley on Tiffany Mitchell

Mitchell will tell you all this, but she would much rather work on her game than talk about it. In that way, and many others, she's a lot like Staley was as a player.

"She is very feisty, with a refuse-to-lose attitude," Mitchell said. "I think we're both pretty sore losers. I think she saw that in me when she was recruiting me and knew I would do anything to help this program."

When Mitchell was a kid, she was a fan of Staley and the WNBA's Sting when that franchise was in Charlotte. Mitchell's godmother was a friend of Andrea Stinson, a former NC State player with the Sting, and would take her to games. Mitchell even had a poster of Staley, and the two have been a good match as mentor and pupil in college.

"My freshman year, I was really one-dimensional and easy to guard," Mitchell said. "You could just back up, and I would still try to run into you. I've developed a jump shot, because I knew that had to happen."

Now, it's not as though Mitchell didn't have a good rookie year. She did, averaging 9.2 points and 5.1 assists. But Staley pointed to her shooting percentage -- 37.9 -- and explained that it was mostly due to Mitchell taking bad shots.

"Her first year, she was just attacking the basket and rarely shot 3s or pull-ups," Staley said. "She changed her shot between her freshman and sophomore years to where she got under it a little more. She got in the gym and worked."

"If there is a blueprint for becoming an All-American, she has the outline for how you become great at your sport. And it is sacrifice. When you are as balanced and driven as Tiffany Mitchell, you're going to be successful."

As a sophomore, Mitchell shot 49.3 percent from the field; this year she has raised that to 49.9 percent. And the "balanced" part Staley refers to is that Mitchell is also an exceptional student.

Her mother, Cheryl Mitchell, wouldn't put up with anything less. Cheryl is a recently retired school administrator who also taught for many years. Welch, whose mother is a Navy veteran, said she and Mitchell benefited a lot from having moms who were strict and no-nonsense about education and responsibility.

"When you're used to growing up in that environment, it shows when you're off on you own. You still want to do things the right way," Welch said. "You keep your head on straight and stay on the right path. With Tiffany, she'll always be the first person in the gym and probably always the last one out.

"Her mom was a principal, and it wasn't an option to not make good grades. She's a tremendous student now. She gets things done ahead of time, and that gives her more time in the gym."

Basketball and school bring out the most serious side of Mitchell, yet you just need to look at her eyes to see there is a lot more to her. Mitchell's eyes often have an unmistakable spark of "merry mischief" in them, as if she's contemplating a series of one-liners that she might or might not deliver.

"No, it's not your imagination," Welch said, laughing, when asked about that. "I'm telling you, don't trust this one."

Mitchell, grinning, said, "I'm a little devious."

Hence her ability to bring humor into situations where everybody needs to relax a little, but don't realize it.

"Like even when we're running, and everybody's dog-tired and bent over, Tiff's got that little smile," Welch said. "She's like, 'Y'all good? You look tired.' I'm telling you ..."

Mitchell said, "I'm just trying to make everything OK."

Mitchell has been more than OK for the Gamecocks; she has been the program's All-American performer during its rise to national prominence. Staley is proud of the growth in Mitchell's game. She still wants Mitchell's passing to improve, seeing that as the final piece of the puzzle to come together. But in terms of mentality, Mitchell has what it takes.

"She's cut from the same cloth as me when it comes to the competitiveness, the will to win, shying away from the attention," Staley said of Mitchell. "I know the type of work ethic she has, how efficient she is, and what she can do on both sides of the ball."

One more victory, and Mitchell will be on the biggest stage of women's college basketball. Admittedly, being in the limelight just isn't her thing. But as with everything else, Mitchell will work on it.