By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009
As Debbie Antonelli sat courtside and watched Maryland senior Kristi Toliver sink one three-pointer after another -- eight in a row at one point -- in a win over Virginia Tech in mid-January, she was reminded of another coolly confident shooter she had seen in a game over the holidays. Antonelli, a color analyst for several cable networks, thought of Davidson's Stephen Curry.
"I think they're identical," said Antonelli, who has broadcast a handful of Maryland games this season. "Besides looking like brother and sister, they are uncanny in their ability to get shots off, and they are both so good in transition."
It is a comparison that Toliver has heard before. After all, the 5-foot-7 Toliver and 6-3 Curry both have lithe, deceptively strong frames. Both are natural scorers who play point guard for their respective teams. Both have strong basketball pedigrees, with fathers who helped shape their games. Both burst into national prominence by hitting big shots in the NCAA tournament.
Curry might be the more prolific shooter and scorer; he leads Division I men at 29.1 points per game and has made nearly four three-pointers a game. But Toliver, who averages 17.6 points, might be more proficient; at the start of the week, she ranked fifth among Division I women in three-point percentage and is currently shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc. Curry has converted 38.6 percent of his three-pointers.
No current women's player has made more three-pointers in her career than Toliver, who is at 270 (out of 650 attempts) and counting. She is Maryland's career leader -- and has nearly 100 more than any other Terrapin -- and is third in ACC history. She has made four or more three-pointers in 20 games in her career; in 16 of those games, she made at least half of her long-range attempts.
Debbie Ryan, in her 32nd season as Virginia's coach, says Toliver is "one of the best shooters I have ever seen." Nancy Lieberman, the former coach and Hall of Fame player, describes Toliver's shot as "picture-perfect."
Toliver credits her father, a former standout player at James Madison and former NBA referee, for that. George Toliver taught Kristi how to shoot by using a kiddie basket he bought at Kmart, and from the very beginning, he made sure that she learned the proper fundamentals and had fun. At first he had her shoot with a tennis ball, instead of the small basketball that came with the hoop.
"The shot in its purest state is one-handed," said George Toliver, who is currently the director of officiating for the NBA Development League. "I chose tennis balls because I wanted her to have a fundamental follow-through. Also, it was easier to have successful games, because the tennis ball would go into the big hoop a lot more. So we could cheer and give high-fives. It was fun."
As Kristi got older and stronger, the ball got bigger and the basket got higher. She still remembers all the different balls she used -- "the tennis ball, the mushy ball, the actual small ball [that came with the kiddie hoop], the junior ball, the women's ball," she said -- and how her father traced the outline of her hands in proper shooting position on the ball. George Toliver wanted his daughter to understand all the component parts of her shot, so when she missed a shot, she knew why and knew how to correct it.
"That's why I started with a tennis ball, so I would get in the right habits of not sticking my elbow out, holding my follow-through, having good balance, having the right lift," Toliver said. "Even now, if I'm struggling with my shot, or if something's a little bit off, I know how to make that adjustment and get it right."
Toliver started developing her most lethal shot -- her step-back jumper -- when she was in high school; she remembers watching Allen Iverson, another undersize guard, on television and then going outside to mimic his actions. It came naturally to her, and now she is capable of hitting that shot out to the arc and beyond.
"It's so tough. You think you got it covered, and then dang, she finds a way," Antonelli said. "That's her trademark, the step-back three. How many women's basketball players have a trademark shot? I can't think of another one."
It's Toliver's trademark in part because she used it to make the biggest shot in program history: the game-tying three-pointer over 6-7 Alison Bales in the final seconds of regulation against Duke in the 2006 NCAA final. This month, Toliver hit a three-pointer from a similar spot on the floor at the buzzer to beat No. 14 Florida State, 72-71. In her career, she's also hit buzzer-beating shots at the end of the first half of seven other games, including her collegiate debut, at Siena in November 2005.
Recently there was a poll on the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Web site that asked, "Who do you want to take a buzzer-beating shot to win a game?" Toliver was the overwhelming winner (with 57.49 percent of the vote) over Oklahoma freshman Whitney Hand, Rutgers junior Epiphanny Price, Tennessee sophomore Angie Bjorklund and California senior Devanei Hampton. Toliver is Lieberman's pick, too, because in order to make a buzzer-beater, you first have to be able to get the shot off.
"She can get her shot off against anyone, anytime," said Lieberman, who works as an analyst for ESPN. "We were doing something on the NBA, and were talking about who would you want to close out games in the last 10 seconds: LeBron, Kobe, Dwyane Wade? I said, 'We have someone like that on the women's side, and that's Kristi Toliver.' "
Toliver no longer spends hours in the gym, putting up shot after shot; she says that the less time she puts in working on her shot the better, because it's about quality not quantity.
"I can shoot for 25 to 30 minutes and I'll be completely content and feel really good about where my shot is at," Toliver said. "I like to do a lot of spot shooting, a lot of off-the-dribble step-back stuff, because those are very gamelike. For me, so long as I have that rhythm, no matter where it is, then I don't need to practice coming off of a screen or making a shot. So long as I have the feel and know what it feels like, that's all that's really necessary for me."
Toliver knows Curry's father. Dell Curry went to Fort Defiance High, which is roughly a 15-minute drive from Tolivers' house in Harrisonburg, Va., before starring at Virginia Tech and in the NBA. She says that when she was 13 or 14 years old, she played a game of HORSE against Dell -- and won. Naturally, she'd love to square off against Stephen someday.
"To play HORSE against the men's top scorer in the country?" Toliver said. "That would be really fun."