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UCONN WOMEN’S BASKETBALL Finding the key

February 23, 2019

STORRS — Her first two seasons under Geno Auriemma’s watch have seemed like a long odyssey, marked by stops and starts, eye rolls and blank stares, and checkered health.

Safe to say, things haven’t gone quite as planned for Mikayla Coombs.

Coombs, a highly sought-after recruit coming out of Georgia in 2017, has spent her time at UConn adrift, mostly out of the picture. Her role has been minimal at best, limited to mainly garbage time for the 11-time national champions.

Amid all this gloom, though, is good news. Coombs believes she’s finally unlocked the secret to what’s been holding her back.

Herself.

“I have a problem of trying to be a perfectionist,” the sophomore guard said Friday following practice at the Werth Center. “So, with basketball, it’s definitely a hard thing to accomplish. You’re going to make mistakes on the floor. So, (I’m) just focusing on getting away from that perfectionist mindset I’ve instilled in myself.”

Coombs, who contributed 21 quality minutes off the bench Wednesday against Memphis, may be breaking through that mental barrier with time to spare this season. She said recent conversations with Auriemma have helped clear her mind.

“He’s just like, ‘You’ve got to calm down. The person who’s holding you back is you,’” Coombs said. “I’m just trying to focus on that. I can only go as far as I can take myself. In the past, I’ve been holding myself back. I’ve been worrying about every single thing.”

While the 5-foot-8 Coombs has struggled mightily with her shot, making just 5-of-29 attempts from the floor this year and 15-of-60 for her career, including 1-of-16 from 3, her defense has been respectable. In the third-ranked Huskies’ 102-45 rout of Memphis, she contributed four steals and four rebounds.

Keeping that in mind, Auriemma has encouraged her to focus on what she does best.

“We’ve worked really hard on her defense the last few months,” UConn assistant Chris Dailey said. “She’s gotten a sense of how to be a good defensive player for us. That can be a niche. We’re looking for someone to fill that role. The last week, she’s been really, really active on the defensive end. That’s helped us.”

Added guard Katie Lou Samuelson: “I think she’s been doing a really good job of kind of understanding what she’s really good at and what she can do to help us, and not putting too much pressure on herself to do too much. I think when she goes out there (she’s thinking), ‘I know I’m going to do this, this and this, and if I do those things, then I’m going to help the team.’

“She’s in a really good spot.”

Coombs was able to overcome her mental roadblocks in high school, where she performed well enough to rocket into the top-15 of ESPN’s national recruiting rankings. But, life at UConn, the gold standard of women’s college basketball, has been far more difficult.

She played sparingly as a freshman, scoring just 28 points across 25 games (10-of-31 shooting, including 1-of-11 from 3), before missing the latter part of the year with a blot clot in her leg. Though she’s been healthy this season, her production (averaging 0.7 points) has remained largely the same.

“I think I was just worrying about everything too much,” she said. “I’m just trying to just go out there with a clear mind and stop worrying about everything. When I go out there with a clear mind, I’m a much better player than when I’m worrying about every single thing happening.”

It’s simple: If Coombs starts worrying less, Auriemma will start worrying less.

“My confidence level,” Auriemma explained Wednesday, “is generally directly related to the confidence level that they have themselves. So, a kid who’s not confident in themselves, I have no confidence in. And a kid who’s pretty confident because they know it, they’ve worked hard, and they believe in themselves, then obviously I feel like that kid’s ready to go.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour