Toliver, Claytor Are Old Friends in New Places

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

BOSTON, April 1 -- Their friendship comes with barriers now, but Kristi Toliver and Heather Claytor have learned to operate within them.

The two freshmen arrived Friday night at the players-only banquet for the women's Final Four and found their seating assignments 15 yards apart. Toliver rearranged chairs at the Maryland team table; Claytor switched positions with a North Carolina teammate. The two friends finally settled into seats at the edge of their team tables, their elbows jammed together.

Even though Toliver and Claytor meet in the Final Four on Sunday night as adversaries, they're determined to celebrate this landmark together. They played for the last three years on an Amateur Athletic Union team near Harrisonburg, Va., and the guards developed a friendship that propelled them to this pinnacle. Claytor recruited Toliver into elite summer basketball; Toliver guided Claytor through the college recruiting process and her parents' divorce.

They talk at least three times a day, Toliver said, mainly to discuss the successes of their freshman seasons. Toliver stars for Maryland and scored 11.4 points per game, while Claytor has emerged as one of North Carolina's top reserves. The Final Four is an experience they're determined to share -- even when Maryland plays North Carolina on Sunday night at 7 at TD Banknorth Garden.

"We always tell each other that even if we're not teammates, we're basically family," said Toliver, who overcame a stomach virus to score 28 points in the round of eight on Monday night. "We're always talking. We rely on each other, because everything we're going through is basically the same."

When they met, differences defined them. Teammates called Toliver "city girl" and Claytor "country girl," and the stereotypes stuck. Claytor grew up on a farm with 40,000 turkeys, and her immediate family boarded a plane for the first time Saturday to reach the Final Four. She overcame mediocre athletic ability in high school, coaches said, by developing an impeccable three-point shot.

Natural talent made Toliver a sought-after prospect from age 13. Her father -- a well-traveled NBA official -- helped her develop fancy dribbling moves and a natural instinct to drive fearlessly to the basket.

"We only lived 15 minutes apart, but we came from totally different places," Claytor said. "I just knew her from basketball, and I never thought we'd have anything in common."

On a whim, Claytor sent Toliver an instant message early in high school inviting her to join the Elkton Elks AAU program, and the two players soon co-starred on a team that defined their high school experience. The Elks qualified for AAU nationals in three consecutive seasons, and Claytor and Toliver became fast friends. In their junior year of high school, Claytor convinced Toliver to spend a week of her summer vacation living and working on the Claytor family farm.

What followed was a close friendship interrupted only when Harrisonburg High School (Toliver) and Fort Defiance High School (Claytor) played against each other. After a boyfriend broke up with Toliver over the phone two years ago, she hung up and immediately called Toliver. When Claytor decided to commit to North Carolina, she called Tar Heels coaches with one phone and Toliver with another.

Claytor said she never needed a friend more than during her junior year of high school, when her parents divorced. She called Toliver, whose parents had divorced years earlier, and asked for advice. Toliver invited her over -- and Claytor stayed for two days.

Toliver "was the main person who helped Heather get through all that," said Mike Jenkins, coach of the Elkton Elks. "Heather would have struggled without her."

Said Peggy Toliver, Kristi's mom: "When those two weren't hanging out together, they were probably on the phone. It started as a basketball thing, but it went way beyond that for them."

It's a bond current teammates struggle to understand. Maryland and North Carolina have played twice this year, and -- not wanting to break their usual routine -- Toliver and Claytor have talked extensively each time. Tar Heels players had free time scheduled Saturday night, and Claytor said she planned to invite Toliver to hang out.

Before Maryland's 98-95 win at North Carolina on Feb. 9, Toliver and Claytor met before warmups and hugged. When Claytor passed up an open three-point shot later in the game, UNC guard Ivory Latta blamed Claytor's miscue on sympathy for her best friend's team.

"She wasn't too happy," Claytor said. "Honestly, when we're playing against each other, we're not friends at all. But if I see her before the game again [Sunday]? We're probably going to hug. What else can I do, you know? That's my best friend."

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