Taja Cole sat in a Tuscaloosa hotel room as she was studying game film. It’s her per-usual routine as Georgia’s point guard watches endless hours of tape to better herself and the team. On this occasion, however, she wasn’t watching her team. Cole was watching her idol, Chris Paul, rack up assists against the Golden State Warriors.
Paul, the veteran NBA point guard who has set league records and is vastly known as “CP3,” had 13 assists as the Rockets recorded a road win against the defending champions. Cole watches Paul’s craft in amazement each time, and she’s done so since his days at Wake Forest — a short drive from Cole’s hometown of Roanoke, Virginia.
Four inches shorter and in a different league, there’s a similarity in their approaches.
“I try to be the Chris Paul for my team,” Cole said. “I’ll get my assists up there one day.”
As Cole finishes her junior season as the Lady Bulldogs’ leading passer, she’s not too far off. She averages 6.9 assists per game, which holds the top mark in the SEC and ranks sixth nationally. Cole entered her season with the goal of earning the Nancy Lieberman Award, granted to a national assist leader, and being a focal point in Georgia’s offense.
Georgia opens postseason play Thursday in the SEC Tournament (Arkansas, 6 p.m., SEC Network), and Cole’s assist tally has been instrumental in determining whether the Lady Bulldogs are efficient offensively. Her highest total through conference play was 12 against Florida, and Georgia finished that victory with a 58.2 percent shooting mark. Cole has recorded nine-or-more assists in SEC games this season, and the team has shot over 42 percent in each of those contests.
“It’s one of the first stats we look at during halftime and after the game,” said Georgia assistant coach Karen Lange, who coaches the guard positions. “It tells you how well you shared the basketball and the types of shots we were getting. They’re easier makes.”
Cole’s passing display isn’t one that would bore anyone, either. It’s a twice-a-week show that draws plenty of gasps from those watching. She has fun with it. That can be seen by the numerous no-look passes to Caliya Robinson or the cross-court lasers to a teammate standing behind the 3-point line. Whichever one Cole chooses to show off, it mostly draws a big smile and a high-five. She knows when her assist has some pizzazz and doesn’t hesitate to let people know it.
It was something shown in Cole’s first season of eligibility at Georgia, but now has gone a step further. Georgia coaches saw her ability to distribute, and that’s what Cole regards as the main job of a point guard. Lange works with Cole frequently to dissect a film session or yell during practice — regardless of whether a pass was successful or not. That reinforcement leads Cole to have an all-around game which is based around assists and a quick drive to the basket.
“She’s really good at knowing when to get players the basketball,” Taylor said. “She’s able to do incredible things with the ball, and that’s because she’s so good and can score. You have to make a decision when you guard her, because she’s really good at passing it off if you need help.”
When Cole takes the court, her assists look as if they’re being strung together with pure ease (even when it’s quite difficult). It takes a lot of chemistry and selflessness for a point guard to be successful, and Cole attempts to build upon it tirelessly.
For example, she must know where Robinson may be standing on a certain offensive play. Cole has to memorize strengths and weaknesses, so she can find fellow guard Gabby Connally at her favorite spot beyond the 3-point line. Without that, offensive efficiency becomes drastically tougher.
Cole’s season assist tally is nearing school history. Her nine-assist effort in a loss to Kentucky allowed Cole to surpass Teresa Edwards for the fourth-best mark, but is 34 shy of tying Saudia Roundtree’s record of 226 (1994-95).
“A point guard never focuses on ‘me, me, me.’ It’s always about putting the team first and learning people every day,” Roundtree said. “… I think records are meant to be broken, and congratulations to her if she’s the one to break it.”
Cole’s next opportunity to build upon her numbers will come against a fast-paced Arkansas team which has its fair share of talented guards. The Razorbacks, the No. 10 seed in the tournament, are led by Chelsea Dungee and Malica Monk in a four-guard lineup. Dungee and Monk are reputable for their scoring abilities, but the chances for both teams to rack up assists will be aplenty.
Georgia’s challenge lies in beating a team three times in one season. Each team has a lot of familiarity with one another, and the Lady Bulldogs will be attempting the clean sweep. Georgia won 80-72 on Jan. 31, then followed it up with a 93-83 victory at Stegeman Coliseum. So, one takeaway: scoring and a lot of it.
“I’ve been looking at every game as a championship,” Cole said. “We have to win each game from here out.”
That mentality starts with Cole, and it will likely end with a dependence upon how she performs. If her assist numbers begin to reach Chris Paul levels, then Georgia will be in OK shape.
And with each one, her teammates will be dumbfounded.
“She makes some passes that look really easy,” Connally said. “If I go and make them, then it’s a turnover.”