Girls Basketball: Baker has moves and genetics on her side

Mattituck freshman Tiana Baker playing defense against Babylon’s Michelle Mangini. (Garret Meade photo)

A prominent player carries the Baker name for the Mattituck High School girls basketball team. If that sounds familiar, there is a good reason for it.

Kelly Baker once patrolled Mattituck’s court, grabbing rebound after rebound, piling up points on putbacks and mid-range jumpers. And now there is another Baker doing good things for the Tuckers, her niece, Tiana Baker.

A skillful freshman who seems mature beyond her years, Tiana is making an impact, and could be headed to a high school playing career comparable to that of her aunt, who was one of the best players Mattituck has produced.

“She has some shoes to fill, but she’s got the right DNA to fill it with,” coach Steve Van Dood said. “Genetics are a good thing.”

Because she was too young at the time, Tiana never got to see her aunt play, but she has heard about her. “I know her legacy goes on in the high school,” she said. “I honestly look up to her. She’s everything. Everybody is like, ‘Kelly used to do this. Kelly used to do that.’ … She’s my idol.”

Kelly, who went on to play for Union College (N.Y.) at the NCAA Division III level before moving to Chicago, never got to see Tiana play, either. If she had, she undoubtedly would have liked what she had seen.

Tiana’s progress in basketball has been rapid. When she was a seventh-grader she played for the eighth-grade team. As an eighth-grader she played for the junior varsity team. This season she has started all 18 regular-season games the Tuckers have played.

“I didn’t know who our starting five would be at the beginning of the season, and she stepped up and took it and never looked back,” said Van Dood.

He continued: “She really wasn’t all that outstanding, to be honest with you, in seventh grade, but I saw that she had the eye and she had the athletic ability, and she could be taught, and I think that’s what spurred it. I think that year really sparked in her mind that she could be the basketball player I really saw in her.”

Tiana is a different type of player than her aunt was. Kelly was a slashing forward. Tiana is a shooting guard, who shares the ball-handling duties with sophomore Katie Hoeg.

Besides the last name, what Tiana has in common with what Kelly had is athleticism and a fierce competitiveness.

Those qualities have served Tiana well. She scored 17 points and shot 7 of 14 from the field as the Tuckers closed out the regular season with a 53-50 defeat of Babylon on Feb. 4. Baker sank a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch and made a last-second block to enable the Tuckers to hold on for the win.

With the playoffs to look forward to, the 5-foot-9 Baker leads the team in scoring, with an average of 16.3 points per game. She was also good for 4.6 rebounds a game, and doesn’t hold back when fighting for a loose ball. Not only that, but Van Dood said Baker plays “stellar defense.”

Baker laughed when she was asked if she had surpassed even her own expectations this season. She said, “I have to say I really was shocked and surprised at how well I’m doing right now.”

Others have taken notice.

One of her teammates, senior Molly Kowalski, said Baker is “good to play with because she knows what she’s doing. She’s smart. She’s got a real basketball mind. She has a lot, a lot, a lot of potential, so I’m excited to see what she can do.”

Babylon coach Chris Ryan noted that his team has a player to worry about for the next few seasons. “She’s going to be some player,” he said. “I really like the way she plays. She can play inside, she can play outside.”

Van Dood was fulsome in his praise of Tiana.

“She’s been nothing but a pleasure,” he said. He continued, “She goes to the basket hard, and she’s got the right attitude, and with those key ingredients, she could go really far in this sport.”

The coaching staff appreciates Baker’s on-court leadership, too. Van Dood said he and his assistant coach, Don Wilcenski, noticed last year that Baker is vocal in a positive way. “You know, there’s a right way to say things, and she seems to do that,” he said. “It’s not what she’s saying, it’s how she says it.”

Baker said the experience of playing for the varsity team has been “awesome.”

In addition to her aunt, Baker called one of her teammates, Shannon Dwyer, a senior forward who is cut from the same mold as Kelly, another one of her idols. “I’ve always looked up to Shannon,” Tiana said. “I see the way she hustles in practice, and I push myself.”

When someone complimented Tiana on the relentless way she battles for rebounds, she smiled and said, “Almost like Kelly.”

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