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In their college backyard, Terps-made Mystics carry Maryland with them

During any given Washington Mystics practice, Kristi Toliver casts a shadow 5 inches taller than her, a shadow named Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

“I call her ‘Young Squire,’ ” Toliver said. “At practice, she runs every day, we always get our shots in together, playing copycat.”

In the WNBA, the two are separated by nearly a decade. Toliver is a 10-year veteran while Walker-Kimbrough was drafted in 2017, sixth overall.

Walker-Kimbrough quickly fell under Toliver’s wing, joining the squad as a rookie as Toliver came in as a free agent from the Los Angeles Sparks. Both women, despite their generational cavern, knew what it was like to wear Terps red and gold for 16-year coach Brenda Frese.

“Maryland recruits the best. It’s nice to continue to play with the best, even if we’re from different generations, different years,” Toliver said.

Even though Washington wasn’t forecast to be trophy contenders, the Mystics (13-9) entered Tuesday leading the Eastern Conference — which couldn’t have been done without three Maryland graduates on the roster.

“There is a unique bond, even though they haven’t played with each other [at Maryland]. It would have been incredible to see those three together [there],” Frese said. “There is this kind of kindred bond of former Terps that look out for each other and stick together.”

Before Walker-Kimbrough, Toliver and Tianna Hawkins, there had only ever been three Maryland graduates on the Mystics — let alone three at the same time — despite the team’s close proximity to the school’s campus. Five other Terps alumni dot the league — Marissa Coleman (New York Liberty), Lynetta Kizer (Minnesota Lynx), Crystal Langhorne (Seattle Storm), Brionna Jones (Connecticut Sun) and Alyssa Thomas (Sun).

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud played briefly with the Terps before transferring to Saint Joseph’s (Pa.) after her freshman season. She played in 31 games with six starts for Maryland in the 2010-11 season, averaging 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds per game while finishing third on the team in assists (62).

With such a heavy Terps influence in the professional scene, Frese blocks out home games on the Mystics schedule where she can manage an escape to watch her old players between recruiting and “juggling twins.”

“It’s just phenomenal when you see all these Terps and alums on the court living out their dreams,” Frese said.

After playing 27 games as a rookie, Walker-Kimbrough’s subsequent season has been a little more sporadic. Though she’s shooting 43.6 percent from the field, she’s averaged just 8.8 minutes per game and has started only once. During last Wednesday’s game with the Atlanta Dream, she played one minute.

“Coaches choose the rotation and what he thinks is best for the game plan,” she said, “and I continue just to stay ready whenever my number’s called.”

It’s a lesson that, surprisingly, she learned next door.

A Baltimore native who grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., Walker-Kimbrough was Maryland’s third-leading scorer in her freshman year and pivotal to leading the Terps to four NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Fours. In the 2015-16 season, she led the NCAA in 3-point percentage (.545), a Big Ten record, and is one of five Terps to score 2,000 career points.

For most players, there’d be some frustration that, after a season-and-a-half of professional play, she still hasn't become the leader she’d been at Maryland. But that’s not Walker-Kimbrough.

“I know over the course of my four years at Maryland I continued to get better each year,” Walker-Kimbrough said, “and I’m just trying to continue that mindset, never stay complacent but always staying hungry.”

Averaging 14 points per game, Toliver is already on track for a career-best year. But despite her numbers, and her veteran status, the 31-year-old Virginia native carries a near-identical mindset to her protege — especially now that she’s started coaching, taking a trial run with the Washington Wizards’ summer league squad.

“As much as I try to give my input, I’m learning at the same time from everybody,” Toliver said. “It’s been nice, with the back and forth.”

Hawkins, who graduated after four years at Maryland in 2013, has played intermittently as a forward with the Mystics since 2014, and is gleeful to brush shoulders with former Terps.

“We’re familiar faces, we know what it’s like to be at Maryland,” Hawkins said. “We can reminisce on the Maryland days, talk about Coach B and stuff like that. … Even though we didn’t play together, it’s good to have that unity and family feel.”

Hawkins’ summer with Washington is not dissimilar to her first at Maryland.

There’s a resemblance to the 17-year old girl that stepped onto the Maryland court in 2009 with a little too much meat on her frame, nervous that she didn’t belong. Frese did not agree.

“She was the first coach to believe in me,” said Hawkins, who dropped more than 20 pounds from her freshman to her junior year at Maryland. “Coming out of high school, the adversity I faced with her prepared me for the pros.”

Hawkins took the baton from Toliver, who graduated the season before. By her junior year, she led the NCAA with a field goal percentage at .623. She was also drafted sixth overall, by the Storm.

After the birth of her son, Emanuel, Hawkins carried baby weight on the court in 2017. She spent the offseason revitalizing her body, especially at College Park, using the younger Terps as an impetus to drive her.

“It’s a big piece of who we are,” Frese said. “Our players come back and train when they have breaks. … We have them in practice, we have them speak to the team, they always come back. It’s a great feeling when your alums come back to where they call home. It’s really special to be able to have.”

She’s averaging a career-high 7.2 points per game and spending more time on the court, up to a 17.7-minute average compared with her career average 12.8 minutes.

On top of focusing on herself, Hawkins sees herself as a mentor for Walker-Kimbrough as well, given their college ties.

“I stay in her ear. I pick her up when I feel like she’s slipping a little bit,” Hawkins said. “But Shatori’s been good. She’s a professional.”

As the Terps’ influence on the Mystics has tripled in the past year, there’s been an influx of Maryland fans — self-titled “Rebounders” — in the seats at Capital One Arena. It hasn’t gone unnoticed with Walker-Kimbrough.

“No matter how you’re playing, no matter if you’re playing, they’re almost always supportive, and they’re always there with a smile on your face and they greet you with a hug. I’m blessed to have them in my life,” she said.

Frese and most of the 2018-19 Terps women’s basketball team traveled to Washington for the late June game against the Sun to witness five Maryland alumni on a professional court.

“That relationship just doesn’t finish when they graduate from Maryland. Even they’re no longer helping us get wins here, it’s for life,” Frese said.

But even when Frese isn’t physically within the walls of Capital One Arena, the bygone Terps know her presence is unwavering (and not just because she watches the games on her phone).

“She’s only one call away, and she makes it known that she’s only one call away,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “Basketball related, non-basketball related, she makes it known … that she’s down the road.”

kfominykh@baltsun.com

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