Mikayla Coombs is an ‘invaluable’ piece for the Lady Bulldogs

Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs (4) goes for the layup against Drexel in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Monday, March 22, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Mark Sobhani/UGA)
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Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs (4) goes for the layup against Drexel in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Monday, March 22, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Mark Sobhani/UGA)

Credit: UGA Athletics

SAN ANTONIO — Drexel’s two lead guards were in the midst of orchestrating a half-court set on the perimeter. That is until Keishana Washington made the mistake of attempting a pass with Mikayla Coombs in the vicinity.

She sniffed it out. Hannah Nihill didn’t have much of a chance because Coombs snagged it and ran toward the basket with gazelle-like speed for a layup. In an instant, Georgia’s do-it-all guard swapped the basketball uniform for a set of football pads.

Coombs had her pick-six.

“I love the idea of jumping into a passing lane,” she said. “Anytime I have the opportunity to imitate playing football, I’ll do it.”

A fumble recovery of sorts followed. Coombs smothered Kayla Bacon on an inbounds pass. She tried to go to Nihill once more, but Que Morrison — Georgia’s other Energizer bunny — deflected it. Coombs dove for the loose ball as it headed for the baseline. She gave Georgia two possessions in a matter of seconds.

Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs (4) steals the ball as Drexel guard Erin Sweeney (12) follows during the first half of their first-round women's NCAA tournament game Monday, March 22, 2021, at the Greehey Arena in San Antonio, Texas. (Ronald Cortes/AP)
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Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs (4) steals the ball as Drexel guard Erin Sweeney (12) follows during the first half of their first-round women's NCAA tournament game Monday, March 22, 2021, at the Greehey Arena in San Antonio, Texas. (Ronald Cortes/AP)

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Georgia’s coaches hope that the film doesn’t make it down the street to the football offices. Kirby Smart did say that the Bulldogs are thin at cornerback, after all.

“My fear for Mikayla is that Kirby is going to take her from me,” Taylor said in Monday’s postgame news conference. “There’s no secret that she wants to be a football player. She’s out there making plays the way she was today, I’m scared he’s going to put her as a safety or a corner.”

Those sequences epitomize Coombs’ style. She’s the source of energy. A bench player who logs starter-like minutes and makes the Lady Bulldogs run. After a dry spell during conference play, Coombs’ confidence is back, and she has returned to being the force that Georgia needs to have success in the NCAA Tournament, one that continues against Oregon (3 p.m., ESPN2) on Wednesday.

“Mikayla is invaluable to this team,” senior point guard Gabby Connally said. “We need her for everything she does.”

Georgia saw the surge from Coombs from the moment she put on the uniform. The transfer from Connecticut immediately turned heads when becoming eligible in November. She validated the Lady Bulldogs’ depth and showed its result by contributing in many more facets than scoring — steals, assists and in ways that extend beyond a final stat line.

She hit a rough patch in the middle of SEC play, however. Coombs combined for 29 points over eight games, an average of 3.6 points per contest. She averaged 7.3 points before the adjustment period, so Coombs’ contributions weren’t as prevalent. She hadn’t had nearly the same workload or expectation in her two seasons as a reserve under Geno Auriemma.

Simply put, SEC opponents had figured out how to slow Coombs. She’s the type of player who isn’t self-centric, but Coombs had to find an answer. She worked tirelessly with associate head coach Karen Lange — who works primarily with the guards — to dissect film and develop a jump shot.

“It stifled her when it first happened, to be quite honest,” Taylor said. “She adjusted and is choosing when to attack.”

Similarly to non-conference play, everything began to click again in the regular-season finale at Florida. She tied what was then a career-high 11 points, and became the third piece alongside Jenna Staiti and Maya Caldwell as Georgia posted 95 points in a win over the Gators.

Coombs’ value came full circle in the SEC Tournament win over Texas A&M. She was stepped on by Aggies guard Destiny Pitts when running in transition. She buckled to the ground and began to cry because she thought it was serious. Coombs previously suffered a torn ACL and currently is playing with a torn labrum in her hip, Taylor said, so fear intensified in the moment.

She went back into the locker room and kept asking about the game’s status. She had to get back out there because she knew the Lady Bulldogs needed her spark. She returned after halftime with an ankle sprain, but adrenaline kicked in and it didn’t matter. She scored 14 points and willed Georgia to victory over Texas A&M.

Georgia's Mikayla Coombs (4) snags a pass over a Texas A&M defender during their SEC women's tournament game Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Greenville, S.C. (Todd Van Emst/SEC)
Caption
Georgia's Mikayla Coombs (4) snags a pass over a Texas A&M defender during their SEC women's tournament game Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Greenville, S.C. (Todd Van Emst/SEC)

Credit: SEC

Credit: SEC

Her confidence-boosting game illustrates how Coombs “has a knack for leaving her footprint on the game,” as Taylor put it.

“No one can stop her,” freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker said earlier in the season. “It’s unbelievable. She brings a will to work hard, no matter what.”

On Monday, Coombs earned her first start after Connally had limited action while recovering from an ankle injury. Georgia told Coombs about her starting assignment a few hours before the Drexel game, and she didn’t have a reaction. The former five-star prospect who had her days as a feature player didn’t see her role change because the Lady Bulldogs put her name in the starting lineup.

The approach is where Coombs’ value might be most prevalent. She’s versatile and turns away from any semblance of spotlight.

“I know what I can do, and I try to bring that to the table everyday,” Coombs said. “We want all-around success. I want to come in and do what’s expected of me, that’s all.”

All Taylor has to do is ask. The words are said and the request is granted. Georgia can ask Coombs to start. She can defend the premier opposing player when Morrison comes off of the bench. She can play 10 minutes or rarely see the bench, and Coombs will oblige.

“The two words that Mikayla says most often are ‘OK’ and ‘yes ma’am,’” Taylor said. “She’s really a part of us having this no-flinch mentality.”

Over recent weeks, Coombs has been Georgia’s lifeline. The Lady Bulldogs wouldn’t have advanced to SEC Tournament final without her, nor would they have found a rhythm without her 35 minutes of intensity to open festivities in San Antonio against Drexel.

While joking about the football pads, Georgia knows it can’t be without No. 4.

“She is someone who wants to do whatever is required to win games,” Taylor said. “She might not fill up the stat sheet, but I can’t think of a game where we haven’t needed her.”