COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley grinned widely as she watched her fourth-ranked Gamecocks celebrate their first Southeastern Conference.
And she believes this team could have even bigger successes ahead.
"When you play in our league and you're the top team in the SEC, it speaks volumes across the country," Staley said Thursday night after South Carolina beat Georgia 67-56 for its 10th straight victory.
Tiffany Mitchell scored a career-high 25 points and Alaina Coates added 18 as the Gamecocks (26-2, 14-1) finished 16-0 at home. South Carolina's other 6-foot-4 forward, Elem Ibiam, had a team-high nine rebounds and five of the team's 11 blocks.
The 26 victories are a high in Staley's six seasons and the most the team has won since going 30-6 in 1979-80.
Staley said earlier this year she was surprised at how quickly a team that lost three senior starters from a year ago jelled to become an SEC contender. As the league's top team, Staley's eager to fine-tune and see how far her players can go.
"I think we're playing extremely well," Staley said. "We like what winning feels like."
Mitchell made sure they held to that feeling against the Bulldogs (18-10, 6-9). She had 16 first-half points while her teammates struggled to get untracked. When Georgia closed within seven points early in the second half, Mitchell had four points in a run that restored South Carolina's double-digit lead.
"I just kind of read the defense," said Mitchell, who topped her previous high of 22 points set against Southern Cal this past November. "I knew we could penetrate on them and get the ball inside."
Mitchell was 7 for 10 from the field and made all 10 of her foul shots. She also added six rebounds and two steals.
Erika Ford had 16 points to lead the Bulldogs, who'll finish with a losing SEC season for just the fourth time in league history.
Georgia coach Andy Landers said his team dug too deep a hole to climb out of.
"We just couldn't make any shots early and whenever we made a run, we couldn't keep it going," he said.
The crowd of 12,458 chanted "S-E-C Champs" as time ran down, celebrating a feat few Staley could accomplish pull off when she arrived six years ago.
Georgia cut the lead to 32-25 on Khaalidah Miller's foul shots with 17:18 left in the game, but Khadijah Sessions hit a basket and Mitchell scored the next four points to extend South Carolina's lead to 38-25 two minutes later.
The Bulldogs couldn't get closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Gamecocks players jumped around the court when the horn sounded, slapping hands with fans and hugging each other in celebration. A few moments later, SEC commissioner Mike Slive awarded the trophy to Staley and her team.
"I call him 'The Godfather,'" Staley says, "because he's real soft spoken but a powerful man. It was an honor to have him here."
The Colonial Life Arena had the energy of balloon ready to burst. The local TV stations broadcast live during their newscasts and Staley mixed with fans around the court as the teams took pregame practice.
Mitchell, the team's top scorer, kept the Gamecocks energy high early on. She scored eight of the team's first 14 points and South Carolinia steadily built a 22-7 lead midway through the period.
Mitchell finished the half with 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the opening half. The rest of the Gamecocks, especially their vaunted 6-foot-4 pair of Ibiam and Coates, struggled to get anything going.
Ibiam, who came in as the SEC's top shot-blocker, got three in the first half, but could not set up cleanly underneath against Georgia's defense.
Coates, one of the top candidates for SEC freshman of the year, played just four minutes because of foul trouble. She earned two in a short stretch and when Staley sent her back in late in the half, Coates was called for a third foul.
The inside problems didn't matter much since Georgia put on one of its worst offensive halves of the season and trailed 30-18 at the break.
The Bulldogs opened 1 of 8 from the floor and never got much better. Their 18 points in the period were their second-fewest in a half this season, trailing only the 17 they managed in the first half of a 58-44 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 12th.
Georgia's three top scorers in Shacobia Barbee, Miller and Ford were a combined 3 of 16 from the field for seven points.
They improved in the second half, but still finished 12 of 41 shooting in Georgia's loss.