When the WNBA Finals between the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun tips off Sunday at 3 p.m. in Washington, the best-of-five series won’t just pit two franchises seeking their first championship. It will also be a mini-reunion of sorts.
Of the 24 players on the teams’ rosters, six played at the University of Maryland. No other program has more than one representative in the finals.
Four of the former Terps play for the Mystics in guards Kristi Toliver, Natasha Cloud and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and forward Tianna Hawkins. The two Maryland players on the Sun’s roster are forwards Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones (Aberdeen). All but Cloud exhausted their college eligibility in College Park. Cloud transferred to Saint Joseph’s after her freshman year in 2010-11.
“It’s a good day to be a Terp,” said Toliver, who played hero in Maryland’s first and only NCAA title in 2006 and sarcastically pointed out she is the oldest of the group at age 32. “It’s pretty cool to see so many Maryland alums playing in the finals.”
Many of the players occupy critical roles for their respective teams. Thomas leads all Connecticut players in average minutes (30.2), ranks second in rebounding (7.8), and third in assists (3.1 per game) and scoring (11.6 points per game).
Cloud has started all 34 games for Washington and leads the team in minutes (32.1 per game) while ranking second in assists at 5.6 per game, trailing only Toliver (6.0). Toliver also ranks third in scoring (13.0 points per game), Hawkins is tied for third in rebounding (4.2), and Walker-Kimbrough ranks fourth in free-throw shooting (93.0%).
Hawkins and Cloud both played with Thomas, while Walker-Kimbrough and Jones were teammates for four seasons. Despite their shared roots, however, four of those five players said they won’t hesitate to deliver a hard foul to a former teammate.
“We can be friends off the court, but on the court, we’re on opposite teams,” said Jones, a Havre de Grace resident. “So there’s no mercy.”
Informed of Jones’ comment a day later, Walker-Kimbrough said she would have been “offended” if her former teammate had offered a softer sentiment.
“Every foul’s going to be hard,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “Even though [Jones] and [Thomas] are both bigger than me [by at least 5 inches and 45 pounds], I’m going to try to foul as hard as I can. They probably won’t feel it, but that’s OK.”
The proliferation of Terps in the WNBA Finals is a delight to the woman who has helmed Maryland since 2002.
“It’s a coach’s dream, right?” Brenda Frese said with a laugh. “I’m really happy for each of them. When we look back at our careers, they each hold a special place in our hearts and the success of our program. When you look back at all the great years we’ve been able to have at Maryland, a big reason was because of those players. So just really proud to be able to see it all come full circle and see all of their hard work pay off.”
The former Terps credited Frese and her coaching staff with helping prepare them for the rigors of the professional level.
“They train us and treat us like pros,” said Thomas, the school’s all-time leader in scoring, rebounding and double-doubles for both the women and men. “She sees the best in you and pushes you to your limits. I know that with my four years there, she never let me be satisfied and always challenged me to be better. I always say that was the best decision I ever made because they are a huge reason why I am the person that I am today.”
Added Toliver: “I think what Maryland does is when you get there, you leave better, and I think that shows in all of the players we have in the league now.”
Walker-Kimbrough said the family environment Frese cultivated at Maryland has continued to resonate in the pros. She recalled a game in Seattle in 2017 after which Storm forward Crystal Langhorne invited her and fellow rookie Jennie Simms to dinner.
“I don’t know if she would have done that if I didn’t go to Maryland,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “We just knew each other because we both went to Maryland, but she just took me under her wing even though she was on Seattle’s team. So that meant a lot to me. That’s going to stick with me forever, how she just took me under her wing as if I was her freshman.”
Curt Miller, the coach and general manager of the Sun, said he appreciates a certain toughness in the former Terps.
“I know that I can get on Maryland players because Brenda has gotten on Maryland players,” said Miller, who coached former Terps center Lynetta Kizer in 2017. “So they’ve been coached hard, and they’ve been challenged. It’s a different style of coaching at the pro level, but when you periodically have to coach hard, you never fear that the Maryland players haven’t been through that.”
Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault, who also coached Langhorne in 2013, said Frese’s ability to recruit top players is not lost on WNBA front offices.
“If they become seniors and they’re All-Americans, they’re probably good enough to play in our league,” he said. “There’s a reason those teams are top-10 teams all the time in college basketball. So as a general rule, you’re going to take the best players from the best teams, and that’s just the way it happened to work out.”
The Maryland players expressed a certain amount of pride in knowing their school will be heavily represented in the WNBA Finals. But that loyalty goes only so far.
Walker-Kimbrough said bragging rights are at stake, while Thomas said the Mystics “are in the way” of the Sun’s path. Hawkins, who said she is not one to talk on the court, delivered a biting line Friday.
“We’re going to see who’s the better Terps,” she said. “Of course we are, but it feels good to be playing against them. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it.”
Frese, who plans to attend Game 1 in Washington and is hoping to be at the remaining games in the series, is trying to remain above the fray. But she conceded she is cheering on one team in the finals.
“That’s easy. I’m rooting for Maryland,” she quipped. “So I’m in a win-win.”