As a national TV audience watched, the WSU women presented the best side of themselves and the program. The Raiders overpowered, then outlasted No. 4 seed Arkansas, 66-62, at the Frank Erwin Center on the University of Texas campus at Austin.
It was the first ever win for WSU women in the NCAA Tournament. And the first time since 2012 a No. 13 seed had knocked off a No. 4 in the tournament.
Today WSU faces No. 5 seed Missouri State in a 3 p.m. tip at the USTA Convocation Center in San Antonio.
In Arkansas, the Raiders faced a daunting task.
The Razorbacks started three fifth-year seniors, including All American Chelsea Dungee, a fourth-year senior. They were battle-tested in the tough SEC and had two especially impressive victories.
They gave No. 1 seed UConn its only loss of the season and also handed defending national champ, Baylor, one of its just two losses on the year.
But Arkansas didn’t have the relentless Baker, who had 26 points, 12 rebounds, and at every critical juncture in the game was there to lift her team.
She scored 18 points and had eight boards in the first half as WSU stunned Arkansas for a 38-26 halftime lead.
“I know they looked at us as underdogs,” Baker said by phone Monday night. “We had to set the tone early and create a little space for when they made their run.”
When the Razorbacks cut the deficit to three points later in the third quarter, she closed the stanza with five straight points in the last 61 seconds.
In the fourth quarter, Arkansas surged back and took a 60-58 lead with 1:32 left. And exchange of baskets – a three by WSU’s Alexis Stover and a layup by Marques Davis of Arkansas – had the Razorbacks ahead 62-61 as the final minute ticked off.
Then with 29.1 seconds left Baker buried a three-pointer from right in front of the Raiders’ bench to put WSU ahead 64-62. Two more Baker rebounds and two free throws with 8 seconds left by teammate Jada Roberson sealed the 66-62 victory.
“After the game the Arkansas coach (Mike Neighbors) said, “No. 15 (Baker) is the toughest guard we played this year,” recounted WSU coach Katrina Merriweather. “And you know what a compliment that is coming from that (SEC) league.”
Neighbors sounded much like IUPUI coach Austin Parkinson did two weeks earlier in Indianapolis after Baker led her team over the Jaguars to win the Horizon League Tournament and get into the NCAA Tournament:
“She’s a stud. She’s one of the best guards in the country. I was telling somebody: ‘I was watching the SEC games the other day and they didn’t have anybody as good as her out there on the court.’”
Talk like that the past couple of weeks means one thing when it comes to Baker,
Some of those Power 5 schools who suddenly developed alligator arms a few years ago will again find a long-armed reach toward her, just as they did after she starred when the Raiders made last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019.
She was just a freshman when the Raiders were overmatched by a bigger, more athletic Texas A&M team that was playing on its home court.
Baker, though, never flinched. She led the Raiders with 22 points and had a few OMG! moments, none more so than her no-look, behind-the-back pass from deep on the wing, that froze three stunned A&M defenders as it went into the hands of teammate Teneshia Dixon for the layup. It made ESPN Sports Center’s Top Ten Plays of the Day.
“She could have been gone then,” Merriweather said. “After that tournament, we’re not naïve enough to think that people didn’t PM (private message) her and call her and her AAU coach.”
Will it be the same this time?
“Absolutely,” Merriweather said.
“But Angel is a loyal person to begin with. And I’m not saying that to put her in a box. We all have conversations at the end of the season about what’s best. moving forward. And I wouldn’t think she’s disloyal if she all of a sudden decided to do something else. She’s given us three good years.”
A lot of players may have jumped to bigger and brighter lights, but Angel Baker isn’t a lot of kids.
“I stay loyal to Wright State because they stay loyal to me,” she said. “Even though the recruiting process was a little tough for me and I had some bumps in the road and a lot of schools backed off, Wright State stayed with me.”
Baker got caught up in an on-court scuffle during a game as a high school sophomore and her team’s season was suspended. At the time she said she wasn’t the type person some portrayed her to be and Merriweather didn’t waver.
“Wright State believed in me when no one else did.” Baker said. “And when I’ve gotten to the big stage and shown I can handle it, other schools wanted to come around. And I was like: ‘You didn’t believe me back then!’”
Merriweather said WSU tried to stay true to its word:
“When she came here, she found what we said we were as a staff and an environment was true.
“But she also realizes what opportunity there is on this stage. We don’t hide the fact that the Horizon League is one of the 10 through 15 ranked conferences in the country. She knows we’re not a Power 5 and some notoriety we don’t get and sometimes she and her teammates don’t get the recognition they deserve.
“But when she gets an opportunity to prove who we are as a team and who she is individually – when we get a chance to show our heart and our grit – she rises to the occasion.
Over the last six games, Baker – a two-time All Horizon League first team selection – is averaging 25.7 points and 6 rebounds a game.
“We’ve take about her legacy being the person who’s part of a team that breaks all these records,” said Merriweather. “I don’t know if she’ll break any of Kim’s (career scoring leader Kim Demmings) records, but we weren’t as good of a team then.
“While it’s individual with Angel, it’s also about how she leaves this program. We were pretty good when she got here, but she’s making us better.”
“That is Angel’s legacy.”
And that deserves a hand, too.