COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was pleased with her team's victory over Florida on Sunday.
She and the fourth-ranked Gamecocks were much happier about an hour later when they clinched a tie for their first-ever Southeastern Conference title.
South Carolina earned its share when No. 15 Kentucky defeated 16th-ranked Texas A&M 83-74. The Gamecocks watched in their locker room and celebrated Kentucky's 83-74 win over Texas A&M. South Carolina can win the crown outright with a victory at home over Georgia on Thursday night.
"This is exciting," forward Aleighsa Welch said. "Now, we've got to take care of business."
Staley and the Gamecocks (25-2, 13-1 SEC) have done that much of the season, including against the pesky Gators (17-10, 7-7) in front of the second largest crowd (10,547) ever to watch women's basketball at 11-year-old Colonial Life Arena.
Tiffany Mitchell scored 20 points, Alaina Coates had 16 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Gamecocks.
Staley, the basketball Hall of Famer, reflected on the title few believed the program would win when she arrived from Temple six years ago. "It feels great to do what most people thought we could never get done here at South Carolina," she said.
The Gamecocks had never won more than 11 SEC games in a season. Staley's first team in 2008-09 won just two, but entered this year with consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Staley hoped her players would enjoy the moment, but is confident they understand there's more left to achieve over the next few weeks. "We want to be greedy at this point," she said. "We want to win it all, as much as we can win."
Mitchell took a knee to the thigh in the opening period and looked barely able to move before trainers helped her off the court. While the injury was not serious, Mitchell clearly looked out of synch early on against Florida's swarming pressure: She was only 2 of 5 from the floor for six points and had six of the Gamecocks' 13 turnovers in the first half.
But she turned things around after the break with 14 points and just one miscue to lead South Carolina.
"Tiff's a player," Staley said. "She's not going to play perfect basketball every time out. When you can handle adversity like she did in the first half and play like she did in the second, that's when you know she knows how to turn the page and put us on her back."
And the Gamecocks needed the support against pesky Florida.
They led by 16 points midway through the second period until Florida rallied with an 13-3 run that cut things to 49-43 with 5:19 left. But Mitchell followed with a open 3-pointer from the left corner before Welch and Coates had inside baskets to restore the double-digit lead.
Once more the Gators fought back to trim the lead to 58-51 and again Mitchell's jumper and foul shot put the Gamecocks ahead 61-51.
"I just tried to settle down. I was playing too fast early on with a lot of unnecessary turnovers," said Mitchell, who wore ice bags around both knees. "I just had to stay in it and get myself going."
Jetera Bonds scored 20 points to lead Florida before fouling out in the final minute. Kayla Lewis, who also fouled out in th last seconds, had 15 for the Gators.
Mitchell also added seven rebounds. The 6-foot-4 Coates was 5-of-5 shooting and had five of South Carolina's 11 blocked shots in her eighth game with double-figure points and rebounds this season.
Mitchell had six points as the Gamecocks opened the second half with 16-8 run to lead 46-30 before Florida rallied back.
"We tried to do a lot of different things to shift the game," Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "But they're execeptional and a great example of why this is the best league in the country."
There's been little opposition to slow down South Carolina since their lone SEC loss at Texas A&M, 67-65 in overtime, back on January 16th. The Gamecocks have won eight straight coming in by an average of 18 points a game. The closest call was January 26th when they outlasted Vanderbilt on the road, 61-57.
The arena was decorated in pink as South Carolina play in honor of those who who've fought or are batting breast cancer. Those include Gamecock assistant Nikki McCray, who was diagnosed with the disease in November and is undergoing treatment. She has not missed a game with the team due to her illness.
"We knew this day was about her," Mitchell said of McCray.