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Baker has an idea of what to expect from USC

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During the 2015 MEAC Women's Basketball Tournament game between Savannah State and UMES

Cedric Baker watches during the 2015 MEAC Women's Basketball Tournament game between Savannah State and UMES at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia, on March 14.

The 16th-ranked Savannah State women’s basketball team understands exactly what will be on the line when they travel to top-ranked University of South Carolina (30-2) tonight at 5 p.m.

Lady Tigers coach Cedric Baker believes that having the opportunity to play the Gamecocks early during the regular season has prepared his team for this moment. SSU lost on the road to USC 111-49 on Dec. 14.

“They [the team] understand what’s on the line,” he said. “We’re a different team at this point … they’re not getting above themselves; they’re confident, much more mature and focused.”

Baker knows the critics' lack of faith in his team’s chances, but that doesn’t scare him. Savannah State (21-10) is playing its best basketball at the right time, the team enters its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance on an 11-game win streak and has won 17 of its last 19.

SSU's 65-47 win over University of Maryland-Eastern Shore in the conference tournament punched the Lady Tigers a ticket to March Madness. The team's win over Maryland-Eastern Shore also earned the team its first MEAC Conference Tournament Championship.

“I envisioned this day coming,” Baker said. He praised his players for their work and improvement throughout the season. He also mentioned that the team has grown through experience and has matured as individuals as well as a team.

"They have experience, they are comfortable and understand our defensive and offensive systems," he said.

The Lady Tigers, somehow, have found reason for optimism following their first match-up against the Gamecocks. SSU’s point total of 49 was higher than nearly one-third of the Gamecocks’ opponents this season.

“I believe we can keep the score around 50 if we limit transition and play solid defense,” Baker said. "We're scoring better, defending better and we've got our health back.

"It's going to be a big challenge," he said.

Baker, who played his collegiate basketball at Voorhees College from 1986-1990, and got his collegiate coaching start at Voorhees in 1993, says that his experiences in South Carolina are the reason he has been able to accomplish what he has at Savannah State.

"It all started in Denmark, South Carolina," he said. "Voorhees gave me an opportunity to play then (an opportunity) to coach.

"It's a privilege and an honor."

Contact the writer: awaters@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5532

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