Georgia's Baker one of nation's best defenders

You might drive by her once. You might even get by Sherill Baker a second time. But don't push your luck.

"I really try to read the person I'm guarding, get to know their game and their every move," the Georgia senior said during a recent phone interview. "And by three possessions, I know pretty much how they're going to dribble in front of me and the different moves they're going to use."

Being a quick study with great anticipation has translated into Baker's becoming one of the best defenders in the country this season. Last month, the 5-foot-8 guard became Georgia's all-time steals leader, a throne previously held by five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards. Last week, she tied the program's 10-year-old single-game steals record with 10 thefts against Mississippi State. And this week, possibly as early as Thursday against South Carolina, Baker (whose first name is pronounced "Sha-rell") will break the SEC's all-time steals record. (Editor's note: Baker tallied two steals in Georgia's win Thursday to tie Tan White's mark of 372, set last season).

On the season, Baker has 93 steals -- seventh in Georgia's single-season annals -- and, in this week's batch of NCAA stats, leads the nation at 5.2 per game. The last time a Division I player averaged more than 5.0 steals per game happened 10 years ago, when Southern's LaKeysha Johnson led the country at 5.4. Baker also is just five steals shy of joining the NCAA's top 25 career leaders.

Baker, who broke the Georgia freshman and sophomore steals records, prides herself on her defense "and just going hard on every play." And although she's a talented all-around hoopster who ranks 45th nationally with 17.8 points per game, Baker is quick to admit she's "blessed with a lot of quickness." But she loves using it to her teammates' advantage.

"If I get a steal, or a couple of them, it's going to pump my team up, get us some easy layups and baskets," she said. "It gets everybody going, changes the momentum and gets everybody feeling good."

Georgia coach Andy Landers says Baker's quickness separates her from her peers.

"There are slow people who can read passes but they can't get there," he said. "Sherill just has such great explosion, period. It's not her first step. It just gets better and better after the first step. It's just unbelievably good quickness.

"I've said this forever -- it's amazing how she can move both her feet and her hands at the same time with unbelievable quickness."

Still, Baker is even quicker to keep things in perspective, especially when talking about taking down Edwards' record.

"I'm still kind of amazed [I did it]," she said. "Teresa is a legend. I'm not even close to the player she is."

Baker, in fact, wasn't always the defensive stalwart she is now, and even sounded embarrassed to admit it. But like many young players, Baker started out very offensive-minded. That is, until an AAU coach her freshman year of high school, James Metcalfe, helped her learn to love defense.

"He just yelled at me over and over to play defense and don't let my man drive by me every time."

Every time?

"Yeah," Baker said slowly, adding a nervous laugh. "So, I started defending my player. I wouldn't just reach and let them go by me. I learned how to better contain them."

Baker could barely contain herself when, before tipoff at Georgia's home game Jan. 8, Edwards was on hand to present Baker with the game ball from the Lady Dogs' previous game. In that contest, an 84-70 win over Mississippi, Baker deflected a pass on the perimeter less than two minutes into the game for her 343rd steal, moving past Edwards on the school's career steals chart.

"That next game, they called the lineup, and there, at the end, was Teresa with the game ball," Baker said. "I had had no idea she was there. That was amazing."

Landers says the same thing about Baker's progress since her rookie season.

"What's amazing [is that], as a freshman, we had a devil of a time getting her out there," Landers said. "I remember sitting over there just scratching my head saying to myself, 'Get up. Get up. Break on the ball.'

"All that has taken place is just improving, improving, improving of reading and reacting and understanding how to break on things."

Already Baker has ascended the SEC steals charts, passing current SEC coaches Carol Ross and Pokey Chatman, as well as Alabama's Niesa Johnson and South Carolina's Jocelyn Penn, whom Baker passed for the No. 2 spot against Mississippi State on Jan. 19. Heading into Thursday's game, Baker has 370 steals and a 3.162 career average, which, for now at least, also makes her the SEC's all-time average steals per game leader. Baker -- who says one of her peers she most respects is Ole Miss' Armintie Price ("She's a really great player, especially defensively and the way she goes after rebounds.") -- has made at least one steal in 111 of her 117 games at Georgia, with four or more steals in 14 of 18 games this season.

Still, Baker's wiping out of Edwards' mark made an impression on Landers.

"It's a great accomplishment not just because Teresa was a great player but because she was a great player who played at Georgia 20 years ago," Landers has said. "We've had a lot of great players since Teresa, but no one has really come close to that mark before Sherill."

And Baker -- who says her best moment in college so far was beating Tennessee in the SEC Tournament her sophomore season -- has gotten better at every facet of her game this season. Although she entered 2005-06 with career averages of 40.8 percent shooting from the field, 10.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game, she has increased her productivity significantly in each category: 52.1 percent shooting, 17.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.17 steals per game. She also has climbed to No. 16 on Georgia's career scoring chart.

The big question now is whether No. 15 Georgia can continue to climb back up the polls and SEC standings. After some very lofty preseason expectations and even a No. 5 ranking early on, the Lady Dogs (13-5) suffered a loss to defending NCAA champion Baylor, a 20-point rout by UCLA and an overtime loss at Temple -- all just five weeks into the season. They're 3-2 in the SEC after losing to then-No. 1 Tennessee and letting one get away against then-No. 4 LSU, which pulled out a 65-64 victory Jan. 22 after Seimone Augustus' game-winning shot.

"We just need less mental lapses in the games. That's going to get us more wins and less losses by one or two points. That LSU loss hurt a lot," Baker said. "We're doing really good and have good momentum."

And it will only continue to pick up on Baker's next steal.

All statistics through games played as of Jan. 25.

Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.