Raiders’ experience in NCAA could help against Razorbacks

Angel Baker is one of two Wright State players who had significant roles in the team’s last NCAA appearance in 2019.

That first-round matchup against Texas A&M on the road ended in an 84-61 defeat, and it was never close. The visitors trailed, 31-13, after the first quarter.

But the nimble 5-foot-8 guard expects a more competitive game this time, mostly because the Raiders aren’t complete tourney novices.

“I think it’ll help a little bit — get the kinks and the jitters out,” Baker said.

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While Baker was speaking, coach Katrina Merriweather was standing nearby and interjected, “She did pretty good with those jitters two years ago.”

That she did.

The junior from Indianapolis racked up 22 points, three assists and two steals off the bench against the Aggies.

Senior center Tyler Frierson started and tallied four points and eight rebounds.

“You feel the jitters, but when the ball goes up, it’s like, ‘I love this game. This is me. Just play my game,’” Baker said.

“I know that’s how I feel. And I can help the freshmen out for sure.”

The 13th-seeded Raiders (18-7) will likely need Baker at her best to have a chance against Arkansas (19-8) when the teams meet at 2 p.m. Monday at the University of Texas’ Frank Erwin Center. The game will air on ESPN.

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The 15th-ranked Razorbacks were tripped up in the SEC tourney, losing to Ole Miss in their opener to end a five-game winning streak. But they’re the only team in the nation with two top-five victories, handing No. 1 UConn its only loss, 90-87, and knocking off No. 4 Baylor, 83-78.

UConn has 11 national titles since its first in 1995, while Baylor, which has three crowns, won it all when the tourney was last played in 2019.

The fourth-seeded Razorbacks start three fifth-year seniors and another true senior. And doing battle in the SEC is ideal preparation for the NCAA gauntlet.

The league has seven teams in the event for the third straight time and is first all-time with 248 berths.

South Carolina is a No. 1 seed again. And Tennessee has played in every tourney since it started in 1982.

But Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said: “I know their players are not going to be intimidated at all by the league we’re in or our ranking. They’ll come ready to play.

“They’re going to play up-tempo. They like to play very, very fast. And they won a very good league.”

The Wright State University women's basketball players pose for a team photo after their final practice of the day Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Contributed
The Wright State University women's basketball players pose for a team photo after their final practice of the day Thursday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Contributed

Baker spearheaded a surge to the Horizon League title, scoring 23, 29 and 23 points in the three games to earn MVP honors.

She’s third in the conference in scoring with an 18.1 average and has proven she can be counted on when the lights burn bright.

Merriweather believes the NCAA pressure will only bring out the best in Baker.

“She’s one of the top guards in the country. I don’t care what league we’re in. I don’t care what people think about ‘Wright State’ on our jerseys. Angel Baker is one of the most unguardable perimeter players in the country,” Merriweather said.

“She shows up in games because she shows up in practice. That’s where she has grown tremendously — as a leader. That’s why this team has a chance. When she plays hard every day, they follow her in practice, and they can see the carry-over is there every time she puts on her uniform.”

The Razorbacks also have a backcourt whiz in 5-11 senior Chelsea Dungee, who is the SEC’s leading scorer and was was named AP third-team All-American.

She pumped in 37 points against UConn and has reached at least 20 points 17 times. The Oklahoma native is the program’s first All-American in 17 years.

But neither team is a one-woman show.

The Raiders have out-rebounded their opponents in 23 straight games and are sixth in the nation in rebound margin at plus-12.3 per game.

Another pillar of Merriweather’s program is defense. They’re holding foes to 35.7% shooting, which is the 22nd-best mark in the country, and are allowing only 55.4 points per game, which is 18th.

Shooting might falter in high-pressure games, and ball-handling can get a little shaky. But in Merriweather’s mind, rebounding and defense should never wane.

“Sometimes your nerves can get the best of you, and your shots don’t fall. Maybe you fumble the ball a little bit. But there’s absolutely, 100%, zero excuse to not defend and rebound,” she said.

Baker believes the Raiders will generate their usual tenacity against Arkansas.

“The thing I like most is we compete. That’s my favorite thing about us,” she said. “When we give each other our best (in practice), that’s when we get better.”

As for the Razorbacks, she said: “It’s always good going against good competition. I’m ready for sure.”

TODAY’S GAME

Wright State vs. Arkansas, 2 p.m., ESPN

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