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Athlete of the week: Chargers glad Mitchell stuck with basketball

When Tiffany Mitchell was growing up, she had trouble sticking with activities she started.

She ran a lot and thought she might try track, but that didn't work out. She tried karate, but said she couldn't pay attention for that long. She even joked about becoming a clown because she could make people laugh.

Basketball wasn't on her mind at first.

"I really didn't think I was going to play basketball at all," she said. "I just played because my whole family was basketball-oriented."

Her older brother, Tory, now a student at North Carolina A&T State University, played growing up and always brought home trophies and awards. Mitchell was jealous.

"My mom, since I did everything else and that didn't work out, she was like, 'Oh, basketball's just going to be another thing that's not going to work out,'" said Mitchell, 16. "But I kind of stuck with it.

"It's the only thing I actually stuck with."

Providence Day is glad she did. The 5-foot-11 junior is the Chargers' leading scorer and the key to their chance of winning a second straight state title.

When Mitchell started playing at Providence Day as a freshman, she was small and skinny but coach Josh Springer saw her potential.

"When Tiffany came in as a freshman, she was long and wiry and very explosive, very athletic," he said. After her freshman season, she was invited to try out for the U16 National team, coached by former Providence Day coach Barbara Nelson. In April of her freshman year, just weeks before she was supposed to try out, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in an AAU game in Atlanta.

Mitchell rehabilitated the knee all summer and was cleared to play just before her sophomore season. But the experience changed the way she thought about the sport.

"Being hurt made me realize (that I couldn't) take the game for granted and (have to) just go out and play hard every time I step on the court because I could wake up one day and not be able to play again," she said.

Her sophomore year was a struggle, said Springer. At first, he only let her play limited minutes to make sure the knee was OK. He didn't give her hard defensive assignments, so she could put all her energy into offense.

"Last year was a challenging season for her but I think a season that helped her become mentally a tougher player, because I think until something like that happens ... you take for granted the ability of playing," said Springer.

By February, the end of her sophomore season, Mitchell was back and playing like she did before she got hurt, scoring 30 points in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A state championship game against Hickory Grove, the same team that beat the Chargers in the championship the year before.

As she recovered from her injury, Mitchell got stronger. Scouts who saw her in the fall said she had a "college ready" body, according to Springer. Her strength has allowed her to drive into the lane, take contact and still finish, and also has helped her become a consistent rebounder.

After her sophomore season, Mitchell was invited to try out for the national team again. She didn't make the team but said she enjoyed the experience.

"I was kind of nervous going out there because I knew those are the top players in the country, but it was a great experience," she said. "I learned a lot from it, and not making the team only made me want to work harder."

This year, as one of the two team captains, Mitchell is healthy and ready to take the Chargers (13-4 through Jan. 20) to another state title. She scored her 1,000th point in a Dec. 3 game against Ravenscroft, but she didn't know she was close until a classmate told her the day of the game. She's gotten offers from many Division I schools but has narrowed her list to seven: South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Florida and Clemson.

Mitchell is listed as a guard on the roster, but her versatility is what makes her stand out to college coaches. She leads the team in points per game (17.1), steals (4.7) and assists (4.2) and is second in rebounds (8.6).

"I think her best position is when you put her on the wing and give her the ball and let her create either for herself or for her teammates," said Springer. "She has the basketball IQ and, especially at the end of games, we'll put the ball in her hands and let her make plays.

"I think that's what makes her stock even more valuable at the college level is that she can play both guard spots and do so pretty fluidly."

Springer also said Mitchell shows maturity in the way she doesn't let poor shooting affect her. If she's having a bad scoring game, he said, she focuses on what else she can do to help the team.

"When she misses an easy shot, when she turns the ball over, she doesn't put her head down and she doesn't sulk," he said. "She's a bulldog. You can see fire go through her eyes like she's going to go get the ball back."

She did that in a game against Greensboro Day, getting four steals that turned into easy layups in a 52-32 win.

"They need me to do more than just score," said Mitchell. "I'm going to need to get steals and rebounds and everything."

If she can do that, Springer said, expect good things for the Chargers.

"With her leading the way, I think we've got a great chance this year and hopefully a great chance next year, but we've got to stay humble and hungry," he said.