By Mike Wise
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
When we think Tennessee, we think Chamique Holdsclaw, Candace Parker and, of course, Pat Summitt. When we think Connecticut, we think Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Geno Auriemma.
And when we think of women's college basketball royalty in College Park, from now until the next millennium there is Marissa Coleman, Kristi Toliver and Brenda Frese, the coach who embraced her two seniors -- really, the lifeblood of the program -- as they came off their home floor last night for the final time in the Maryland careers they sprinkled generously with pixie dust.
Sixty-five wins, three losses here. Two unbeaten seasons at home. Near-capacity crowds, including a throaty student section last night.
Did we mention the national title banner? It hangs high on a steel beam with the No. 20, worn by the floor leader whose three-pointer in the championship game three Aprils ago brought dead quiet to Duke, and No. 25, worn by the do-everything forward who stylishly cinched the fabric of her jersey together, better exposing the sinewy arms and strong shoulders responsible for more than 1,000 rebounds.
That's more than a surreal résumé for Toliver and Coleman at Comcast Center; it's almost Bill Walton-at-UCLA numbers. In the building they made incredibly loud for four years, the place where they found their range and rhythm midway through the first half and checked out to a standing ovation with 2 minutes 38 seconds left after putting away Utah in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Maryland's magnificent duo took their final curtsies en route to their third round-of-16 appearance since 2006.
"When you signed your letter-of-intent, did you ever imagine you and Kristi would go [65-3] at home and become a part of Maryland's history like this?" Coleman was asked after the game.
"To be honest, I think we were overconfident when we came in -- Kristi and I just thought we could win all our games," Coleman said. "And then when we won a national title our first year, it almost gave us a false sense of how easy it is. We really had to work to get back where we were. Right now we just feel like we're on a mission."
"When we signed, I believed we could win four national championships," Toliver said. "We actually expected that."
Toliver grew up an NBA kid; it's widely known her father George was a longtime NBA referee. George Toliver's daughter ended up practicing for hours after watching and studying Michael Jordan as much as a young Kobe Bryant.
When she went over during the game last night and exchanged banter with ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli, it was practically out of Jordan's circa 1992 Finals arsenal -- a player in total command of her game, comfortable enough to chat up an announcer at courtside as she casually rained down deep jumpers on her opponent.
"To sit back and think about Kristi and I playing these last four years is really incredible, because we were just kids watching Diana Taurasi and Chamique growing up, thinking how great it would be to be them, sitting in front of the TV," she said. "We won't sit back and reflect too much now because we have more games left, but it's nice to think about -- and almost unreal, really."
Coleman played in her 135th consecutive game, a school record, last night, and Toliver hasn't missed a game since she was a freshman. They have combined for 462 three-pointers in four seasons.
Coleman is about as complete a forward as any player in either the men's or women's game. The calm and serene manner she plays with almost belies her fierce passion.
Take last night, the way she feigned restarting the offense by dribbling out to the top of the key. Then, seeing an opening, Coleman used a pretty hesitation move and wove her way through fabric and bodies belonging to Utah players, until she deposited a soft running layup that brought the crowd to its feet.
Toliver was equally impressive, finding angles and using an economy of movement that only a hoop junkie who understands the game beyond her years could do. She knows just when to release the basketball, giving herself the proper amount of space and timing behind the three-point line and inside it.
They combined for 35 points and 20 rebounds against Utah (Okay, Coleman had 18 of those rebounds. "But remember my two," Toliver joked.)
Afterward, choking up a little on the dais, Toliver said, "I won't lie, I got a little emotional. I didn't want it to end. I knew that was the last time we'd be playing in front of the best fans in the country. I'm sad, I'm not going to lie. It's too bad that it's over, but it's a great feeling knowing that we still have games left to be played."
Coleman laughed later thinking about her teammate, saying, "I'm usually the one who gets emotional."
Some emotion at home is understandable when the hard facts are displayed. Think about it: In four years, their only losses at Comcast came to Duke (twice) and North Carolina. And they squared the rivalry with both schools during victories in the ACC tournament.
So on their last night at home, let Kristi Toliver shed some tears. If she doesn't cry for herself, then she might as well as cry for everyone who had the privilege of seeing her and Marissa Coleman work their games, dream their dreams and enrapture this gym with a sound and a belief unimaginable four years ago.