When former University of South Carolina star Tiffany Mitchell walked off the court for the last time as a Lady Gamecock, it was a bitter disappointment. The Lady Gamecocks, a projected Final Four team, had just been upset by Syracuse in the NCAA women’s sweet 16. But Mitchell didn’t have a lot of time to stress. The WNBA was in her future.
“It just motivated me to put my best foot forward,” Mitchell said. “My college career didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but I knew there was still basketball for me to play. I just let that motivate me to become better.”
The WNBA’s Indiana Fever made Mitchell their first-round draft choice with the ninth pick, and she wasted no time making an impact on the team, and the league.
Mitchell scored in double figures in her first eight games and leads the Fever in scoring at 13.6 points per game – despite starting just five of 10 games – a point per game better than legendary Fever star Tamika Catchings, who will retire after this season. Mitchell plans to learn everything she can from Catchings before the former Tennessee star hangs up her sneakers.
“The opportunity that I have with the Fever is a once-in-a-lifetime thing because I get to play with Tamika,” Mitchell said. “I get to learn from her and be alongside her every day. Seeing how she approaches basketball on and off the court is great for me to see as a rookie. I’m just trying to learn as much as possible.”
Mitchell and the Fever will face Maya Moore and the Minnesota Lynx for the second time this season on Tuesday in a nationally television game on ESPN2. The two teams met early in the season in a game the Lynx dominated in the first half. Mitchell led a second-half surge by the Fever, which fell three points short despite Mitchell’s team-high 16 points.
It will be Mitchell’s 11th WNBA game, and just another phase of her transition from college to professional basketball.
“It’s been kind of smoother than I had expected,” Mitchell said of her transition to the WNBA. “I knew I was coming into a new system and that I was going to be around new players, so I knew I was going to have some peaks and valleys in the transition. The vets have been working with me to make sure I know the plays and know where to be. The help from them has really helped my transition to be smoother.”
She gives a lot of credit to Coach Dawn Staley also.
“What I took away from playing for Coach Staley was discipline,” Mitchell said. “She has always been a very disciplined person. It has definitely helped me here because in the pros, you are kind of
on your own in terms of your approach to the game. So I just learned from her that I have to take the right approach in everything I do. My approach is just to get better every day, do better than
the day before, and try to learn something new.
“I’ve always been a competitor, but playing under her, you tend to emulate your coach. Just seeing how much she competed as a player and now as a coach, it rubbed off,” Mitchell said.
Twenty or 30 years ago, a young female basketball player might not have been able to talk to a coach or mentor with professional basketball experience. But since Coach Staley played at every level before becoming a coach, Mitchell has a lot of experience to draw from.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about her professional career,” Mitchell said. “That’s one of the reasons I chose to go to South Carolina because she has done things in her career that I want to follow and do as well. So we’ve always been in communication about the steps I need to take to become one of the best players out here. Those conversations have definitely helped me make an easier transition from South Carolina to the Fever.”
While the WNBA schedule can be tight and grueling, Mitchell got a break in her schedule and was able to make a quick trip to Columbia to walk across the stage at Colonial Life Arena and receive her degree in Retail Management.
“Graduating was the most important thing,” Mitchell said. “That’s what Coach Staley preaches. It was big for me, my mom and my family.”
Tiffany Mitchell has played against plenty of tough competitors in her college a professional career. She played more than 50 SEC games and also had a couple of encounters with the great UConn teams which have won four straight National Championships. In the WNBA, every night is like a tough game against a top SEC opponent or the best college team in the land.
Perhaps her “welcome to the WNBA” moment came in the fourth game of the season when Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi – one of the greatest college and WNBA players ever — hung 32 points on the Fever, including six three-pointers. But seven Fever players scored in double figures, including Mitchell with 10, and Indiana’s balanced scoring overcame Taurasi’s fireworks in a 97-93 Fever win.
The way her career is going, it won’t be too many months or years before Tiffany Mitchell is another rookie’s “welcome to the WNBA” moment.