Kristi Toliver Embraces Starring Role as Maryland Pushes for Final Four

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009; A01

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.

Afterward, George Toliver would celebrate Kristi's victory by presenting her with an old rec league trophy -- with her name and achievement in place of the original recipient -- and then he would interview her, as if she were on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

"I was 4 or 5 years old at the time," said Toliver, who is on course to graduate in May with a degree in family science. "It's funny, thinking about how my dad really trained me and prepped me for so much now. My confidence comes from that, from an extremely young age. I've been a winner from Day One, and it's because of the way he brought me up. I definitely think it's good for a kid to feel success at such an early age."

For all of Toliver's innate athleticism, much of who she is as a basketball player was learned. She paid careful attention to Jordan, how he played, how he carried himself, how he did interviews. She loved watching the great Connecticut teams with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi; she taped the Huskies' games so she could study them over and over. One reason why she doesn't smile often on the basketball court is because she saw players such as Jordan and Sue Bird keep their emotions in check.

"Kristi is a great observer," said her mother, Peggy. "Very early on, I remember going to games at JMU [James Madison University in Harrisonburg] when her dad was supervising officials, and she would sit and critique what was going on. Carli would be reading a book; she came along because it was a family outing. Kristi was honing in on the players and what they were doing."

'She Loves Competition'

Toliver's teammates describe her as quiet and reserved, with a sharp, dry sense of humor. Daron Park, an assistant coach of the Terrapins who has worked closely with Toliver over the past two seasons, says that she "would do great in a cabin in the woods with a book and a TV. She would not go stir-crazy." She is not unfriendly -- she was voted homecoming queen at Harrisonburg High -- but she can be guarded.

"I think the nature of how she carries herself can sometimes be misconstrued as being pompous. She's not," said Katy Foucar-Szocki, one of Toliver's childhood friends. "She's not the type of person who's going to sit and chat just to chat. That's not how Kristi operates. It's hard to get to know the girl."

Two of the people who know Toliver best have nothing to do with basketball. Foucar-Szocki, now a senior at JMU, admits that she knows nothing about the game, and that she is more interested in how Toliver's hair looks when she plays; they've been friends for more than 10 years, and talk every week.

Mookie Golden, a junior on Maryland's wrestling team, is one of Toliver's closest friends in College Park.

"What makes her so good is how she competes, how she believes in herself," Golden said. "She loves competition. She loves challenges. One day we were shooting around, and I said, 'You sure can shoot that three when you're wide open.' She was like, 'Yeah, but I love it so much better when someone has a hand in my face.' Just having a challenge, she lives off that."

Antonelli, the ESPN analyst, challenged Toliver a couple of times this season.

In late February, just before Maryland played Duke at home, Antonelli asked Toliver how on earth the Blue Devils managed to hold her scoreless during the opening 24 minutes of the first meeting between the teams, a 68-65 Duke victory. Toliver responded by scoring 22 points in the first 24 minutes of the second game, and finished with 34, one shy of her career high, in a 77-59 victory.

This past Sunday, prior to Maryland's first-round game against Dartmouth in College Park, Antonelli told Toliver she didn't think she could score more points than Villanova did as a team in its first-round game (30). Toliver answered with 27 points in just 26 minutes against the Big Green.

The biggest challenges for Toliver and her Maryland teammates lie ahead, beginning this afternoon.

"Kristi wants to win," Antonelli said. "Her confidence is infectious."

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