Gamecocks great Tiffany Mitchell’s jersey retired: ‘She took us to higher heights’

Tiffany Mitchell was just a 16-year-old sophomore in high school when she committed to play for Dawn Staley at South Carolina.

Over a decade has passed since then. The Gamecocks have won two National Championships (2017, 2022), reached five NCAA Final Fours (2015, 2017, 2021, 2022, 2023), recorded six 30-win seasons, won seven SEC regular-season and tournament titles and held the NCAA attendance title for nine consecutive seasons.

At 16, Mitchell couldn’t foresee any of it. But ask Staley about the all-time Gamecock guard, and she’ll say Mitchell started it all.

“I call her my first born here at South Carolina,” Staley said.

“She took us to higher heights. She’s our first Player of the Year in my era. She’s always been one that I can call, I reach out to.”

The No. 6 Gamecocks retired Mitchell’s No. 25 jersey before their home openers against the No. 14 Maryland Terrapins Sunday afternoon. About 60 of Mitchell’s friends and family attended the ceremony, including her mom Cheryl and older brother Tory. Mitchell is the first player in the Staley era to have her jersey retired.

A spotlight shown on the white and garnet No. 25 banner as it rose to its new home in the rafters. Mitchell, whose voice cracked during her speech, bowed her head and shed a few tears. Her mother and Staley came up and patted her on the back. Throughout the pregame celebration, Staley smiled so big her nose scrunched up.

Mitchell’s former teammate and reigning WNBA champion A’ja Wilson came to the game to offer her support. The two embraced after the ceremony, wiping away tears of joy and gratitude along the home baseline.

When 5-foot-9 Mitchell graduated, she was the most decorated South Carolina player in program history: three-time All-American, three-time All-SEC First Team and two-time SEC Player of the Year. She also helped lead the Gamecocks to their first-ever Final Four in 2015. Mitchell accordingly described herself as a hard-nosed grinder who helped lay the foundation “brick by brick” for South Carolina’s current stalwart status.

“I made the unpopular decision back then, and now it’s a kid’s first (choice) to come here,” Mitchell said in a speech during the retirement ceremony. She also thanked her mom, brother and Staley for their support over the years.

Sophomore guard Raven Johnson wears “25” for the Gamecocks after donning the number on her chest in high school. Of all the guards on South Carolina’s 2023-24 squad, Johnson’s speed and athleticism remind Mitchell the most of herself. Her message to Johnson: “Look, if you’re gonna wear the 25, though, you’re gonna have to wear it with some pride and know who was wearing it before you.”

This weekend marked the first time in a long time that Micthell had been back in Columbia after she was selected ninth overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever (she now plays for the Minnesota Lynx) and spent her offseasons playing professionally overseas. Much has changed over the past eight years. But walking around campus floods Mitchell with intense nostalgia as she’s transported back to her days as a college student.

Players become eligible for jersey retirement consideration five years after their final collegiate season, according to USC. Mitchell is Staley’s first South Carolina player to have her jersey hoisted up in the rafters. Both guards’ legacies are intertwined.

That is an honor Mitchell doesn’t take lightly. South Carolina has felt like a home to her since she was 16 – all because of Staley.

“She cared about me more than just a basketball player,” Mitchell said, reflecting on her early commitment to Staley and USC. “So if I never even went to WNBA, I knew that she would be somebody in my corner for the rest of my life.

“Just trusting her when I was 16 years old and committing in 10th grade seemed to turn out pretty well for me.”