No time for Toliver to play like a freshman

Ncaa Tournament

March 22, 2006|By MILTON KENT

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.-- --If she's lucky, Kristi Toliver's effort on the Bryce Jordan Center floor last night will be like one of those near-misses kids have once the training wheels come off and they learn to operate a bike in earnest.

And if the third-ranked Maryland women's basketball team is as lucky, Toliver will take last night's performance, in which she almost skinned her knee, but mostly stayed upright, and use it to steer it to the Final Four in two weeks.

As it was, Toliver had a respectable nine points, five rebounds and eight assists in helping the Terps to an 81-74 win over St. John's in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but she knows she can and will have to do better.

"It was tough getting a flow," said Toliver. "I got frustrated early on, but I tried to transition that the second half and tell myself that the first half never happened and come out and play hard. ... My teammates can't see me like that. This is definitely a learning game for me and, hopefully, come Albuquerque, this will just be one bad night."

Toliver, a 5-foot-7 freshman from Harrisonburg, Va., whose father, George, was an NBA referee before becoming a supervisor of officials last year, shot poorly, hitting just 4 of 15 shots. Worse, she committed a season-high six turnovers one night after recording a career-high 12 assists in the first-round drubbing of Sacred Heart

Many of Toliver's shots were off-balance fadeaways and her turnovers were miscues as she tried to make fancier passes than perhaps the situation called for.

Thankfully for the Terps, many of her assists were easy feeds into sophomore Crystal Langhorne, who likely played her way onto the 10-player Kodak All-America team - the most prestigious in women's basketball - with a 30-point, nine rebound show of dominance that led Maryland to its first Sweet 16 appearance in 14 years.

"I still think, obviously, like any other freshman, she [Toliver] has her freshman moments, but those moments are because she wants to take a big shot," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese.

"She has the confidence and believes in herself. I'll always continue to believe in her and let her take those shots - hopefully, a little bit more in the flow of the offense. But she's always wanting to step up and make big plays for us."

What Frese is asking Toliver to do is not appreciably different than what Mike Krzyzewski did with Bobby Hurley 16 years ago when the Duke coach served the freshman to the wolves and asked him to grow up and lead a talented team to a championship. Hurley was badly embarrassed in the 1990 title game against Nevada-Las Vegas, but bounced back to win two titles.

The Terps, who won a school-record 30th game last night, are eminently capable of the same kind of run the Blue Devils had, what with a starting lineup that has two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, with Toliver at the wheel.

"I've had to grow up really fast with such an amazing team like Maryland," said Toliver. "There's no time to be a freshman, especially as a point guard. I'm the one that they look at.

"In the beginning, I was tentative. I was hesitant about being vocal. But throughout the year, my teammates have always shown confidence in me and that's helped me progress a lot quicker. I'm just trying to give them the ball, trying to make the team better. I think I'm doing a pretty good job of that right now.'`

Still, the Terps are just a repeat of Toliver's foul-plagued performance in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final against North Carolina from going home for the year. In Greensboro, Toliver picked up two fouls early in the first half, her third just before halftime and her fourth early in the second half.

Not only was she unable to play aggressively, but Frese was forced to use junior Shay Doron at the point, where she is ill-suited, and North Carolina took advantage by pressing and trapping Doron all over the floor, turning her mistakes into fast-break baskets.

Granted, the Tar Heels' pressure is probably the best in the women's college game, but the level of guard play the Terps will face will only get better between now and the end of the year. Fairly or unfairly, Toliver's play will have to respond, and that progression will have to start as early as Saturday, when Maryland meets Baylor, the defending national champion.

"It's a challenge, but I always embrace a challenge," said Toliver. "I'm the one that they look at and look to and I have a lot of responsibility on my back. I kind of strive off that pressure. I just love playing under pressure."

For Maryland to succeed, Toliver's learning curve has to be as simple as learning to ride a bike without falling off.

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