HARTFORD, Conn. -- Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese hasn't shied away from sizable gambles during the Terps' rise to prominence, and in the first game of her team's defense of a national title yesterday, she made perhaps her biggest roll of the dice yet.
At the beginning of Maryland's 89-65 win over Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Frese benched sophomore point guard Kristi Toliver for junior Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who transferred last year from Tennessee.
After the game, Frese, who has kept the same lineup for all but two games this season, declined to call her decision a benching but rather a move to lessen the internal pressure that Toliver has been feeling. She said she wasn't worried that starting Wiley-Gatewood would demoralize Toliver.
"It wasn't about benching her," said Frese. "It was about letting her come off the bench and being able to observe. By the time she got out there, she got some great opposite kicks for some really nice-looking shots. I'm not concerned at all. I thought Sa'de brought great tempo and energy to our transition game, which was followed up by both Sa'de and Kristi in terms of what we wanted to get done."
Toliver, who had made 49 consecutive starts, said the move "hurt a little" and seemed to put it aside, scoring 13 points, with a game-high nine assists. She entered the game at 16:19 of the first half for the Terps (28-5), seeded second in the Dayton Regional.
"It [not starting] was different," Toliver said. "Obviously, I haven't done it since I've been here. I'm willing to accept any role that I'm given. For me, I'm just trying to play for my teammates and just get wins and do whatever I have to do. I'm the same person. I'm the same player I was before. I'm just coming [in] four minutes later."
Frese said the coaching staff made the decision to start Wiley-Gatewood, a former national high school Player of the Year from Pomona, Calif., after the Terps lost to North Carolina in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Wiley-Gatewood will start tomorrow night's second-round game against No. 7 seed Mississippi, which beat Texas Christian, the 10th seed, 88-74.
Frese said the staff thought Toliver, who hit the biggest shot in the program's history - a three-pointer with six seconds left in regulation of the national championship game that forced overtime last year - was putting "way too much" pressure on herself. In addition, Frese said Wiley-Gatewood gave Maryland a "tremendous boost" in terms of "vocalness" at point guard.
"The greatest thing about Kristi is she's a tremendous competitor," Frese said. "She's a winner. But we really felt as a staff that we wanted to take some of that pressure off of her. As you can see, she's a tremendous team player and wants to do anything to help this team win. The two of them tonight, they couldn't have been better in terms of how they ran this team. I'm extremely proud of both of them."
Toliver, who is third in the nation in three-point shooting percentage, hit three of eight threes, and has made at least two three-pointers in 13 of her past 14 games. She missed five of her first six shots overall.
"It [not starting] kind of hurt a little because I love being out on the floor with my teammates," said Toliver, who gave each of her teammates a "Team first" wristband before the game. "But that's when I had to be vocal and cheer on my teammates from the bench. It's definitely different for me. But right now is tournament time. You've got to do what you've got to do."
Wiley-Gatewood, who missed the first half of the season under NCAA transfer rules, said the change was "very shocking and surprising. I wasn't expecting it. Probably next year, but I definitely wasn't expecting it. I don't think there's any difference. I guess I just bring more energy."
The Maryland offense seemed to operate with peak efficiency against the scrappy Crimson (15-13), shooting 51 percent for the game (54 percent in the second half) with 23 assists, at least one assist for all but one player. The Terps limited the Ivy League champion to 41 percent shooting, including 35 percent in the decisive first half.
The Terps moved the ball well around the perimeter and inside, playing in a way that harked back to last year's title run.
Maryland senior guard Shay Doron hit nine of 14 shots, including all three three-pointers, for a game-high 21 points against the school that she passed up to come to Maryland.
"Last year, we really, really did a lot of extra passing," Doron said. "I remember getting in trouble for passing too much. Right now, we're just trying to get into that flow, where we can get a lot of great shots. The extra pass was there today, and we made it and we shot the ball really well."
UMBC women overmatched