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Seniors Coleman, Toliver aim to go out on top - with their second national championship

November 12, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Two years ago, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver couldn't help but think big - really big.

In their first season as members of the Maryland women's basketball team, the versatile forward and the fearless point guard had helped the Terps to a national title. Virtually all the talent from that team would return for two more runs. Three or four national crowns seemed within reach, and these confident young players didn't mind saying so.

Things didn't turn out that way.

Maryland won a heap of games but rarely defeated its toughest opponents. Not only did the Terps fail to win another championship, but they also didn't return to the Final Four.

Coleman and Toliver, now seniors, are the only ones left from the title team, the only ones who shared those outlandish ambitions for a dynasty. They're about to lead a squad that lost 51 percent of its scoring and 57 percent of its rebounding from last season. Yet, if you think the reality of two NCAA disappointments and a young supporting cast has trampled their big hopes, think again.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we can win another national championship," Coleman said.

Said Toliver: "This is our team. It's only going to go as far as we take it."

The experts think that's pretty far. Most polls have the Terps in the nation's top five, and Atlantic Coast Conference coaches picked them to finish second in the league. Coleman and Toliver are widely listed as All-ACC and All-America candidates.

Coach Brenda Frese, who says she feels more energetic than she did during her pregnancy last season, is fine with high expectations. She also expects greatness from her senior stars.

"The exciting thing is they know what we expect and they know how to shoulder the load," Frese said of Coleman and Toliver. "They're so in tune to the others, getting them up to speed."

Maryland might have the nation's deepest and most talented backcourt. Toliver won the Lieberman Award as the country's top point guard last season behind career-best averages of 17.1 points and 7.4 assists. Coleman can score from anywhere on the court and defend almost any opponent, quick or tall.

Sophomore Marah Strickland (Towson Catholic) has gotten stronger in the weight room and is expected to shoulder more of the scoring load this year after averaging 8.5 points as a freshman. Senior Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood is back after a season lost to knee tendinitis and should give the Terps a backup ballhandler and defensive stopper.

Questions about the team focus more on the frontcourt, which lost the program's all-time leading scorer, Crystal Langhorne, and 2006 Final Four Most Valuable Player Laura Harper. But Frese attacked the problem through recruiting, landing the nation's top post prospect in 6-foot-4 Lynetta Kizer of Potomac, Va., and ultra-athletic forward Demauria Liles from Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla.

Kizer, especially, has wowed her new coach in early practices. "We knew she was going to be special," Frese said. "But just to see how far ahead she is, she gives us a dominant presence inside."

The team's seniors seem suitably impressed with their new sidekicks.

"I think people know we're a talented team," Toliver said. "But I don't think they know how talented."

She and Coleman feel the same vibe that carried them through 2005-06, when the upstart Terps reeled off improbable rallies against national powerhouse after national powerhouse.

"They remind Kristi and I how we were as freshmen," Coleman said of the team's youngsters. "They're playing out there with no fear."

If the Terps are to return to the promised land, however, Coleman and Toliver are likely to be the ones parting the sea.

Both players stood out from the day they took the court at Maryland.

Coleman, the louder of the two, can fill almost any role. Frese often says coaching the 6-1 guard-forward is like having four players in one. But expect the Cheltenham native to shoot and score more than she has in the past.

"With what we lost and me being a senior, a lot is going to fall on my shoulders," she said with an eager smile.

Toliver hit the most famous shot in the history of the program, a three-pointer that sent the national title game to overtime in 2006. But her fearlessness also got her into trouble during her first two seasons, when she would try impossible passes or push the offense to an out-of-control pace.

Frese sees far more maturity in her floor leader. "Everybody knows what kind of scorer she is," the coach said. "But now I see her understanding the timing, the speed, the pace of the offense. The old Kristi might have run a set before the rest of the offense was in place. Now, she'll wait and make sure everyone is where they need to be."

The seniors take their leadership roles seriously. That might mean physically placing a teammate where she belongs on the floor. Or it might mean offering a ride or meal to an overwhelmed freshman.

Kizer said Coleman has taken care of her "like a big sister."

Strickland noted: "Marissa's definitely the more outspoken one. KT is more likely to take you aside and explain something to you separately. But really, they work so well together."

Coleman and Toliver balked when asked whether the previous two seasons were disappointments. But in the next breath, both said they're gunning for a second national championship.

"Of course," Coleman said. "That has to be the goal every year."

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