Toliver Twist, an Adventure for Terps
There's something plain about Maryland's freshman point guard Kristi Toliver, from her spare and relatively un-muscled arms, to her disciplined shot-making, to her demure ponytail. Lack of vanity is Toliver's most pronounced quality. It's almost impossible to embarrass her, and it's a good thing, because otherwise the Terrapin wouldn't be playing for a championship.
There's nothing showy in Toliver's person or her game, but she is the Terrapins' most consistently solid and most important player entering their NCAA final with Duke. What sort of game she has Tuesday may determine whether they carry home the trophy. She proved as much, although in a roundabout way, by surviving a dozen turnovers in a scrum-like Final Four meeting with North Carolina.
It's hard to name an athlete, at any level, much less a college freshman, who could suffer that kind of public trial and bounce back to take her team to the brink of a title. But that's exactly what Toliver did.
"She kept her head in the game," Coach Brenda Frese said. "How many freshmen do you know who would -- or any player, let's not even tab her a freshman -- make that many mistakes and still be able to keep her head in the game and stay poised and knock down some really key shots?"
Toliver's unshakeable poise, her ability to learn from her mistakes without folding, has been critical for the Terrapins all season. It's hardly right to call her a freshman anymore; she's been in so many tough games and situations. There was their overtime victory in the region final against Utah, when Toliver was the game-breaker with a career-high 28 points, including six three-pointers. And then there was her less glamorous but no less crucial effort against Carolina.
The 12 turnovers were nightmarish and exposing; they came in the face of relentless back-court pressure from Carolina. But Toliver continually found ways to minimize her mistakes and make contributions. When she lost the ball, she made sure to do it while on the attack, deep in the paint. The result was that the Tar Heels never got the kind of fast-break points they were accustomed to (just eight for the entire game). Meantime, Toliver defended lethal Carolina guard Ivory Latta and held her to 14 largely inconsequential points, on 1-for-10 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.
"I think we're losing sight of her effort defensively, what she did against Ivory, keeping her in check and making her take difficult shots," Frese said.
Toliver also found a way to score 14 points, including a dagger of a three-pointer that put the Terrapins up 63-52 with 8 minutes 10 seconds left in the game.
It was the sort of performance every young player should take note of. How many times do you see players of all ages, in various sports, quit running after a mistake? How many times do you see athletes duck their heads and dog it, because they're embarrassed? Too often, the body language of athletes suggests: better to look like you're not trying, than to publicly fail.
Toliver never did any of the above. She just kept coming back for more. Afterward, she said: "I'm not in a great mood about it, but it's over and I'm not going to hang my head about it. We still found a way to win and we're in the championship."