East Lansing’s Trojan girls basketball team won another district title — another championship — on Friday night, an event that’s becoming something of a regular occurrence. The Trojans have now won six-straight districts, going all the way back through 2016.
Each team prior to this year won by maximizing the available personnel to its advantage. In the past, that’s meant exploiting the advantages provided by a handful of dominant stars.
But the 2020-21 team isn’t structured that way. It doesn’t have a world beater headlining the show. Instead, the Trojans this year have relied on their ability to be greater than the sum of their collective parts.
“They define team,” East Lansing Head Coach Rob Smith said postgame. “There’s eight girls on this team on a given night that can score in double figures, and that’s what’s so amazing about it. And tonight you saw some of our regulars were off. And it was some of the kids off the bench like Soraya Timms and Payton Baker. They were stars out there tonight. Corkie [Jones] did a great job. Just to name a few.”
To win the latest district title, the Trojans got a star performance from Baker. Coming off the bench, the junior guard scored 17 points, contributed a litany of steals, and made countless other impacts in an East Lansing win over Haslett, 55-36, on Friday night at DeWitt High School.
With the win, the Trojans return to regionals, where they’ve found mixed success. In 2016 and 2018, EL won its region and advanced to states. In 2017 and 2019, they fell short. And in 2020, East Lansing’s regional title game against Holt, scheduled for March 12, never got played.
“What’s so special is that you buy your team more time together,” Smith said about this win. “That’s the most appreciative thing that I have right now as I get to see these young ladies for another week.”
Baker first subbed into the game less than a minute into the contest. EL trailed, 3-0, and was struggling against Haslett’s 2-3 zone. As Baker got into the flow of the game, Haslett made a 3 to take a 6-0 lead. Then EL applied defensive pressure, making a run to get back into the game, with Baker serving as a catalyst.
First, junior guard Soraya Timms came off the bench and got a steal that led to senior guard Allie Mayes shooting, and making, two free throws. The next possession, Jones made two free throws herself. Then Baker got involved, jumping a Haslett pass and sparking a fastbreak that finished with an Annelise Lebeda layup to tie the game, 6-6.
One possession later, Baker did the exact same thing, jumping a Haslett pass for a steal. Only this time she went coast-to-coast herself, scoring to give the Trojans the lead.
Haslett called a timeout with 1:46 left in the first quarter as the East Lansing fans rose and gave a standing ovation.
The Viking timeout did nothing to slow the Trojans, who went into the break leading, 15-8. EL finished the half on a 15-2 run, with Baker contributing six points and a handful of steals.
“I’ve been working on my defense and my feet and knowing the steals — like where we’re rotating,” Baker said. “So then I could steal the ball.”
For Smith, Baker’s recent scoring outburst — she’s been red hot coming off the bench for EL since the calendar turned to march — is the result of the best one-year improvement he’s seen from a player.
“That girl is the most improved basketball player in one year — if you go back and look at her stats last year, she wasn’t shooting and she wasn’t playing that much as a sophomore,” Smith said. Now, “She’s saving us at times. She is the shot in the arm that this program needs right now. So bless her heart.”
And for Baker, the results of the past weeks are the fruits of an offseason of dedicated labor to her craft. Baker said postgame Friday that during the offseason, she knew she’d had a potentially larger role to fill this season. She wanted to be ready, and capable, to be effective in those minutes.
“I wasn’t in that rotation,” Baker said, “but now that I know that I’m in that rotation, I can have a chance to make an impact. And we needed to fill those roles that we lost last year…. I knew that I could have a chance to have an impact on the team this year.”
Still, coming off the bench to lead her team to a district title with 17 points was not in Baker’s imagination.
“No, I never imagined that I would have gotten to this point,” Baker said, “but I just knew that I was going to be playing more. I just wanted to play more and have more opportunities to do my stuff. So, it’s been paying off and I’ve been making my shots now.”
In the third quarter, Baker helped the Trojans build a formidable lead. After leading 30-20 at halftime, East Lansing stretched its lead to 14 points midway through the third quarter. A Baker steal and layup, followed by another layup, increased it to 18. Haslett responded with a 3, making the score 40-25 in favor of the Trojans.
EL took the ball down the court and began an offensive set. A pass found Baker, alone in the corner in front of the East Lansing bench. She hoisted a 3 that fell and met nothing but net, erasing the Viking 3 as quickly as it came. She scored one more layup in the quarter to be certain, and ended the frame with EL leading, 47-30.
While Baker starred on Friday, when the Trojans go to regionals on Monday, it is just as likely someone else steps into the starring role.
And for the Trojans to advance out of a regional again and get back to states — to win yet another championship — that might be just what’s needed.