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Baker on verge of record for steals

ATHENS - Barely one month after she moved into the SEC's career top 10 list for steals, Georgia's Sherill Baker is on pace to grab the record today.

Baker's fast dash up the list has been almost as startling as the quickness with which she has stockpiled the steals.

The Greater Atlanta Christian grad was dubbed the Queen of Thieves by Georgia's publicists after she passed five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards to become the school's all-time steals leader on Jan. 5. She has passed all but one of the Southeastern Conference leaders after moving into the SEC's top 10 list on Dec. 19.

When the No. 13 Lady Bulldogs play host to No. 3 Louisiana State today, Baker will need four steals to match the SEC record of 372 set by Tan White of Mississippi State last season.

Four steals is no easy task, but Baker leads the nation with 5.4 per game. She is on pace to become the first player in the nation in 10 years to average more than five steals per game. In the 1995-96 season, LeKeysha Johnson of Southern University averaged 5.4 steals.

Baker, a slim 5-foot-8 senior, is a major reason Georgia (13-4 overall, 3-1 SEC) has hopes of challenging LSU and top-ranked Tennessee for the SEC championship even after losing four frontcourt players before the season.

''She's one of the 10 best players in the game right now,'' said Fox TV analyst Van Chancellor, the former coach at Mississippi and with the NBA's Houston Comets.

Chancellor says only a few players in the nation can match's Baker's quickness.

''But no one has her anticipation,'' Chancellor said.

''I think right now she's the best defensive guard in the country.''

Through 17 games, Baker already has 91 steals. She tied Georgia's single-game record with 10 steals in Thursday night's 81-42 win over Mississippi State.

''I guess at this point in her career and in my relationship with her all I can say to you is she's just fun to watch,'' said Georgia coach Andy Landers.

''There's a sense of pride about what she's doing, and there should be because it's not like people are throwing balls at her. She's going to great expense to get the basketball.''

Baker provides more than steals to the Lady Bulldogs. She is the only Georgia player to score in double figures in every game this season. The 17-game streak in double figures is the longest of her career.

Baker set a career high with 25 points against Iona on Dec. 6 and has since matched the high against Memphis and Tennessee.

Forward Tasha Humphrey leads Georgia with an average 19.7 points per game; Baker is a close second at 18.4.

The bigger surprise is Baker also is second, behind Humphrey, with 4.9 rebounds per game. The same slashing quickness that produces so many steals also allows Baker to dart in front of less-aggressive players to take rebounds.

In the win over Mississippi State, Baker led Georgia with four offensive rebounds and shared the team lead with seven total rebounds, matching her season high. She has four career 10-rebound games.

''When you're intense you're intense,'' Landers said. ''It's hard to be intense in one area and not have it carry over and affect other areas. I think the more intense she's become about deflections and steals, the greater her intensity level has risen on everything, offense, running the floor, rebounding.''

Landers insists Baker is excited about her growing list of steals records. If so, she's hiding her excitement.

''I'm not focusing on any records,'' Baker said.

''I'm just trying to do anything to help my team win the game, whether it's rebounding, defense, whatever. I'm just trying to help my team.''

Baker's value rose after Georgia lost power forward Rebecca Rowsey - one of only two Georgia players to start every game last season - veteran Ebony Felder, Penn State transfer Reicina Russell and highly regarded freshman Angel Robinson before the season.

Stripped of almost all its frontcourt depth, Georgia lacks the depth to play the aggressive team defense Landers prefers. Even with Baker's disruptive presence, the Lady Bulldogs are 11th of 12 SEC teams in points allowed per game.

Baker has only 46 fouls, a notably low figure when paired with her 91 steals. She soon will start moving up the NCAA's all-time steals list. She has 368 career thefts, seven behind the 375 by Virginia's Tonya Cardoza, who is No. 25 all-time.

The NCAA record is 624 by Florida A&M's Natalie White (1991-95).

Baker won't approach White's record, but she'll leave her mark in the SEC.

''I think the hardest single thing to do in the game other than shooting the ball is the steal,'' Chancellor said.

''It's unbelievable what she has done.''