Queen of the ball

For top-seeded Terps, senior Kristi Toliver's polished game provides finishing touches

Ncaa Women

March 24, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Kristi Toliver is a quiet, thoughtful soul content to strum her guitar and go to class like any other college senior. Unless you put a basketball into her hands.

Then, the Maryland point guard becomes something else entirely - Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant distilled into a 5-foot-7 female form, the kind of kid who knew from birth she would make the biggest shots in the biggest games.

"She's just ruthless," says Dena Evans, one of her basketball mentors. "She can take the heart out of a team with one shot."

Toliver introduced this character to the world in 2006 when she dribbled around a screen, popped back and lofted a perfect three-pointer over the outstretched fingers of Duke's 6-7 center, Alison Bales. The freshman's bodacious shot tied the national championship game with 6.1 seconds left and gave the Terps a chance to win in overtime. It was, simply, the biggest moment in the history of Maryland women's basketball.

So Toliver, a product of sleepy Harrisonburg, Va., had the unusual experience of beginning her career with the highest high imaginable. What followed wasn't always so idyllic.

Toliver's confidence seemed to wane throughout her sophomore year as the Terps, no longer underdogs, struggled to beat top opponents. Coach Brenda Frese even benched her point guard for the start of the 2007 NCAA tournament, which ended with a dispiriting second-round loss to Mississippi State.

After a difficult look within, Toliver vowed to make the next two seasons more like her freshman year. She rediscovered her love for basketball at a summer camp for point guards and returned to College Park as a more productive player and a more vocal leader on court. Two All-America seasons later, she's leading the top-seeded Terps into another NCAA tournament, one she hopes will cap her career the same way it began.

"It gives you a sense of urgency," she says of the inevitable reflections on her four years at Maryland. "I want to keep playing as long as possible."

Toliver lived up to those words Sunday when she scored a team-high 27 points in Maryland's first-round win over Dartmouth. The Terps will continue their quest Tuesday night against Utah.

Frese also can't help looking back on her up-and-down days with a player who has given her so much. They've been together long enough - 136 games and counting - that communication barely requires words.

"The greatest players take disappointment and failure and turn that into fuel," Frese says of Toliver. "She's never satisfied."

Showing early interest

Toliver can't remember a time when she did not have a basketball in her hands. Her father, George, starred as a guard at James Madison and then became an NBA referee. He first taught the game to his oldest daughter, Carli, but even as a toddler, Kristi showed an interest in following along.

"I loved it instantly," Kristi Toliver remembers. "You can look at pictures of me when I was 1 1/2 or 2 years old, and I'm playing basketball."

Her father focused her enthusiasm. Rather than let her fling a full-sized ball with both hands, he had her shoot tennis balls so she could learn the elbow action, wrist flick and smooth follow-through of a pure marksman. He hated watching kids dribble with their eyes on the ball, so he had her practice ballhandling in the dark, head always up.

Toliver had obvious natural ability. Her father remembered handing her a sawed-off golf club and watching in amazement as she developed a graceful swing the same day. But she also lapped up his lessons and asked for more. He could post notes for a shooting or ball-handling drill on the refrigerator and, sure enough, she would be outside doing it within the hour.

When she was 5, she sat on his lap, watching her beloved Chicago Bulls struggle. "Dad," she blurted out, "B.J.'s got to get this team under control."

She looked past the obvious superstars, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, to realize point guard B.J. Armstrong needed to be a floor leader.

"I had a shiver down my back," George Toliver says. "I knew then that she had something special, that she saw the game differently than most people."

His assessment wouldn't have surprised his daughter a bit. "I expected to become the point guard of the Chicago Bulls," she says.

That confidence, along with her finely honed shooting and ballhandling skills, made Toliver more than a match for opponents at every level. She became the best female player in Virginia, and a passel of big programs wanted her. Everyone assumed Connecticut was the favorite, because Huskies stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi had joined Jordan in her pantheon of role models.

A dream to blaze trails

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