Kristi Toliver Embraces Starring Role as Maryland Pushes for Final Four

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

With more than 17 minutes remaining in the Maryland women's basketball team's second-round NCAA tournament game Tuesday night, Kristi Toliver casually walked over to where the ESPN broadcasters were sitting. Catching the attention of analyst Debbie Antonelli, the guard grinned and chatted briefly as teammate Dee Liles shot free throws.

Antonelli later said she had never before been approached like that during a game, but Maryland Coach Brenda Frese wasn't surprised.

"I've never seen her do something like that before, but at the same time, she's a senior and she's truly in command of the game and her presence," Frese said this week, as the top-seeded Terrapins, with a record of 30-4, prepared to play fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in a South Region semifinal this afternoon in Raleigh, N.C. "She's playing with an all-time level of confidence."

That swagger has defined Toliver more than any other quality over the four years since she arrived in College Park. As a 19-year-old freshman, she had the temerity to attempt a tying three-point shot in the closing seconds of the 2006 national championship game against Duke -- and the ability to make it, forcing overtime and leading to the program's only national title.

Since then, her faith in her abilities has only grown, as has her list of accomplishments. The Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, she enters this weekend's games as Maryland's career leader in assists and three-point baskets and the school's third-leading career scorer. Along with fellow senior Marissa Coleman, Toliver has become the icon of a program favored to return to the Final Four for the first time since its championship. She is poised to become a women's equivalent of Georgetown's Patrick Ewing or Maryland's Juan Dixon in the pantheon of Washington area college hoops heroes.

Playing on the game's biggest stage for the final time -- with the Terrapins' next loss bringing an end to her collegiate career -- Toliver is hoping to shed a little light on the person who took that famous shot against Duke three years ago.

"I think that in this tournament, I'm going to make more of a conscious effort for people to kind of get to know me better, whether it's through the media or how I present myself on the floor," said Toliver, who at 5 feet 7 inches is the shortest player on the Terrapins' roster. "I don't want people to have those questions: What is this girl like, who is she? I would like all of that to be answered before I leave here."

'A Winner From Day One'

Toliver's unflappable on-court demeanor was forged in the basement of her childhood home in Harrisonburg, Va. When Kristi was a small child, her father, George, set up a kiddie basket and outlined a mini-court on the concrete floor, and he taught her how to shoot by using a tennis ball.

"If I wasn't at school or upstairs at dinner, I was in the basement, playing," Toliver said. She pretended it was the Chicago Bulls' arena, and she, of course, was Michael Jordan. But often she would just be herself and imagine that she was playing one-on-one against Jordan, or Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson. "I was very old school," she said.

Her sister Carli, who is five years older and a standout basketball player herself, never wanted to play against Kristi in the basement.

"I knew she would beat me down there," Carli said. "She knew all the tricks. She had that patented no-arc shot that was perfect for that low, little rim."

But George, a former longtime NBA referee, was always willing to play Kristi; he liked to challenge her to one-on-one or a shooting contest. The games usually came down to the wire, and George always let Kristi win. "I was always the Washington Generals," he said, referring to the Harlem Globetrotters' regular foil.

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