Queen of the ball

The Baltimore Sun

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

But Frese sold Toliver on the idea that she could be a trailblazer for the next great program to hit women's basketball. So off she went to College Park to join a team of former high school stars who shared the same aspiration. They tapped a strain of magic that first season, playing fearlessly in the toughest spots against the best opponents. Toliver's shot against Duke became the perfect emblem for Frese's precocious bunch.

The star freshman discussed the last-second scenario with her father the morning of the game. If she came off a screen at the top of the key, she should dribble toward the bigger defender and make a play, he told her.

George Toliver had watched her sink so many shots in the driveway as he chanted "Five, four, three, two, one," that when the ball left her hand against Duke, he had no doubts.

Neither did the freshman, whose idols, Jordan and Taurasi, relished such moments.

"I've just always had that 'it' factor," Toliver says, not bragging so much as explaining why she had no trouble taking a shot like that.

At first, the reserved, small-town kid enjoyed all the attention that came after her star turn. But as Toliver's sophomore year unfolded, observers saw her putting too much pressure on herself and lapsing into uncharacteristic mistakes against tough opponents.

"I could see from her body language that she was struggling with her confidence and maybe with her love of the game," says former Virginia point guard Evans, who would become a major influence on Toliver.

Frese noticed as well and played a hunch the team would perform better if Toliver came off the bench. Toliver tried to say the right things publicly but was clearly mystified by the decision.

"Obviously, when it happened, I wasn't happy about it," she says. "I think a competitor like myself never wants to be put in that situation."

Her father still sounds uncomfortable when the subject is raised. "There was no logical reason for her not to start," he says.

After the devastating loss to Mississippi State, Toliver had long conversations with her father about treating every experience as a chance to grow up. He left those talks feeling "she would handle it the right way."

For her, that meant committing to a week at Evans' summer Point Guard College instead of a tour with USA Basketball. Evans' program is a five-day series of courses and on-court drills that teach everything from dribbling against a press to vocal leadership.

Toliver showed up as one of the most skilled players at camp but also as a young woman questioning her commitment to basketball. She threw herself into the courses, sitting in the front row and taking more notes than anyone else. Her father had told her it was fine to lead by example, but Evans told her that wasn't enough, that a point guard also had to be a lead voice during the game.

"She was willing to try everything, even when I asked stuff that was well outside her comfort zone," says Evans, who endured a similar crisis of confidence during her career. "And I saw her love of the game come back, that confidence."

Her passion rekindled

The camp took Toliver back to her roots. "Just being around people who loved the game so much, it got me excited again," she says.

She was a better, happier player as a junior, and the Terps surged, earning a No. 1 seed and reaching the regional final before losing to a red-hot Stanford team. "We played great, they played great, and, unfortunately, somebody had to lose," Toliver says. "But it felt totally opposite to the end of my sophomore year."

Entering this season as the co-captain of a younger team, Toliver sensed the same loose, fearless spirit that carried the Terps to the 2006 championship. Her confidence seemed unfounded when they lost their opener at Texas Christian and suffered a humiliating 86-57 defeat to Pittsburgh. A brutal 6 a.m. practice greeted them the day after that loss. Toliver also had to sit out against UNC-Asheville for an unspecified violation of team rules.

She swears doubt never crept in.

"We still didn't have our chemistry as a team," she says. "I knew it was too early to say, 'Oh, we're in trouble.' "

The veteran knew whereof she spoke. Maryland emerged as the class of the ACC behind Toliver and fellow senior Marissa Coleman. The pair won their first conference tournament and the Terps earned another No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.

Toliver is close enough to the end that she can talk about what lies beyond Maryland - the WNBA, college coaching perhaps. But she's desperate to delay that reality for a few weeks. She wants mighty UConn in the national championship game.

"Absolutely, that's the matchup everybody wants to see," she says.

If such a contest were to come down to the last seconds, it's not hard to guess who would have the ball for Maryland.

MARYLAND (29-4) VS. UTAH (23-9)

Tuesday, 7 p.m.

College Park

TV: ESPN2

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