Former women's basketball player Tiffany Mitchell never thought she would have her jersey retired when beginning her journey at South Carolina in 2012.
Fast forward 11 years and, after a successful collegiate career and seven seasons in the WNBA, Mitchell became the first Gamecock coached by Dawn Staley to have her jersey hanging in the rafters of Colonial Life Arena Sunday afternoon.
“I always wanted to be great, of course, and be a professional," Mitchell said. "I knew the work that it took to get to that point, but … I never thought that would happen in my life."
Mitchell’s journey toward this full-circle moment began when she committed to play college basketball at South Carolina during her sophomore year of high school in 2010. Staley’s supportive personality played a big role in her decision, Mitchell said.
“That’s the reason why I committed here, just because it always has felt like home, felt like a family,” Mitchell said. “I also knew she cared about me more than just a basketball player, so if I never even went to the WNBA, I knew that she would be someone in my corner for the rest of my life.”
Mitchell's trust in the Gamecock women's program was apparent from the very beginning, Staley said.
“I call her my first born here at South Carolina because she committed to us ... very early not knowing what we would be like,” Staley said. “The process was very short for her because she knew where she wanted to be, and I'll always remember that.”
Mitchell would go on to become the most decorated player in program history by the time she graduated in 2016. She was a two-time SEC Player of the Year and a three-time All-American, in addition to being named to the All-SEC First Team on three occasions.
Mitchell also received the Dawn Staley Award — which recognizes the best collegiate guard in the country each year — for her efforts in leading South Carolina to the Final Four in 2015.
The accolades, she said, are a testament to her hard work and effort, something she takes great pride in.
“I feel like I’m just the person that did it the hard way. I love the grind. The little things, to me, meant a lot, and I think that’s kind of the player that I was. I played hard. I left it all out there,” Mitchell said. “(I) might not have been the best skill-wise, but I think for me, just being a competitor, I think coach Staley had a lot of that.”
Staley similarly remembered Mitchell’s dedication to her craft in her time with the Gamecocks, describing her as both as "my first gym rat" and a "straight-A student."
Mitchell's dedication to her craft and academics in her time with the Gamecocks made her both a "gym rat" and a "straight-A student," Staley said.
The role Mitchell played as a foundational piece in South Carolina's recent run of success, Staley said, is what ultimately will be Mitchell's enduring legacy.
Since Mitchell’s graduation in 2016, the Gamecocks have won two championships, reached an additional two Final Fours and produced 12 new WNBA Draft picks.
South Carolina has also seen many of its younger players emerge as leaders during that timeframe, including junior forward Sania Feagin, who said she learned a lot from Mitchell and fellow former women's basketball star Aliyah Boston this weekend at practice.
"It feels good to have returning players come back and just watch us practice and see how stuff develops while they're not here," Feagin said. "They just tell us to talk more and are just giving us stuff they did as leaders."
Seeing current and future players benefitting from the work she and her teammates put in has been rewarding, Mitchell said.
“Just seeing where South Carolina is now and knowing that I was in the stands when there was nobody here and seeing where it is now, like I said, is just crazy to me," Mitchell said. "I’m just really happy that coach Staley has been able to turn this program around and to get people in here. And now, it’s a powerhouse. Just knowing that we kind of laid it down brick by brick, went through the trenches for them to enjoy all the perks of it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”