- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

BOSTON — Home from another long road trip, George Toliver, NBA official and basketball junkie, sat down at his Harrisonburg, Va., home to watch a Chicago Bulls playoff game. His youngest daughter, Kristi, age 5, parked herself in his lap.

Like just about everybody else watching the Bulls back then, George’s eyes were following Michael Jordan. But not Kristi. Already enamored with the sport because of her dad’s job, she wasn’t necessarily interested in watching the star.

The Bulls were struggling when Kristi turned to George and said, “Dad, B.J. needs to get this team under control.”

“At that moment, I thought, ‘This kid sees the game differently,’” George remembered in a telephone interview this week.

Thirteen years after telling B.J. Armstrong to get it in gear, Kristi is still thinking and playing beyond her years. A 19-year-old freshman point guard for the Maryland women’s basketball team, Toliver will start for the Terps against North Carolina tonight at TD Northbank Garden in the women’s Final Four.

“This is what I came here to do,” she said. “The fact that it’s a reality is overwhelming.”

So is the fact that Maryland, with two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, is in the Final Four for the first time since 1989. And so is the fact that Toliver has played so consistently for the Terps. But that doesn’t surprise Toliver’s teammates and father.

“She’s watched so much basketball and so many great players, she’s taken bits and pieces, molded a persona and that’s what we’re seeing now,” George said.

A McDonald’s All-American and reigning Virginia Ms. Basketball, Toliver was expected to play a big role for Maryland this season with the departure of point guard Anesia Smith. But 28.1 minutes, 11.4 points, 56 3-pointers and 139 assists?

Toliver has exceeded the coaching staff’s expectations, coach Brenda Frese said, “and then some. … We were talking about her the other night — here is a young, small-town kid from Harrisonburg and not a lot of people knew about her and then she goes and has the kind of freshman year she’s had. To put on the kind of performance she did against Utah was truly an amazing story.”

Toliver scored a season-high 28 points in an overtime win over Utah last week. In four NCAA tournament games, where freshmen are supposed to fold like a tepid poker player, Toliver has flourished with 54 points, 29 assists and 13 turnovers.

Toliver is benefiting from the experience she gained in the regular season and the confidence Frese showed in her when she had freshman-like nights and battled a stress reaction in her right shin (which forced her to miss five games).

Early in the preseason, Frese set the bar high for Toliver, telling her, “It’s your team. Lead it.”

“From the very beginning, I knew what Coach B expected out of me,” Toliver said. “It took a little time to adjust to the system and everybody else and their playing styles, but it’s developed.”

And so has the relationship between point guard and coach. Playing for Frese is like playing quarterback for an intense, offensive-minded head coach. They better get used to in-your-ear treatment.

“The positives is that Brenda gives her constant feedback and Kristi always knows where she stands,” Maryland assistant coach Joanna Bernabei said. “Brenda is a very positive coach but likewise, Kristi doesn’t get away with anything. The fact she’s a freshman doesn’t enter into Brenda’s mind. She’s a veteran point guard to her.”

Bernabei, who works with the Maryland guards, said Toliver became a veteran point guard around the first North Carolina game. Against ACC Player of the Year Ivory Latta, Toliver had 14 points and eight assists and forced Latta into 4-for-11 shooting. The Terps defeated the then top-ranked Tar Heels in overtime.

Since that game, Toliver has scored in double figures eight times in 12 games and not had more turnovers than assists in any game.

“From Day One, she’s led,” junior guard Shay Doron said. “The main thing was that she needed to be more vocal and that’s gotten better. She had the skills and basketball IQ when she got here.”

Before Maryland became Toliver’s team to run, she was a standout high school player in Virginia. The 2005 Ms. Basketball averaged 28.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists for Harrisonburg High School. But her AAU career is what generated attention. There, coaches saw the traits she would need for college: Defend, shoot 3-pointers, distribute and lead a team.

When she was growing up, Connecticut was Toliver’s favorite team — in her early teens, she watched a UConn-Tennessee game and broke down the Huskies’ offensive plays and defensive tendencies. But the Huskies disappeared from her radar when she became instantly enamored with Maryland. She took no other official visits.

“I didn’t want to waste my time,” she said.

Toliver was so polished as a player, the Maryland coaches didn’t have to break down any bad habits when practice began. They did have one request: Be more reckless.

“She came here very sound fundamentally but the biggest thing we worked on — and still work on — is to not be too conservative,” Bernabei said. “She’s so fundamental that she sometimes worries about turnovers and throwing it away if she’s going too fast. We’re like, ‘Get into your fifth gear. Go as fast as you can and don’t worry about turnovers.’ We don’t want her to hold back.”

Slowly, Toliver has played faster. And without the high turnover games. She’s had more than five turnovers in only one game. The adjustment from big-time scorer to scorer/distributor has been relatively seamless.

“I always played with scorers in AAU so I got used to distributing it,” she said. “In high school, I needed to be a scorer and I took that responsibility. Now I’m on a team with a ton of scorers and it’s made my job easier.”

Years after they watched games together on television, George Toliver does the watching these days. A knee injury ended his on-court officiating career; he is supervises the NBA Development League’s referees. He was in Albuquerque when Kristi hit six of nine 3-pointers and will be at the Garden tonight, one basketball lifer watching another.

“Growing up around the game and my dad being an official — am I a junkie? Yeah, I am,” Kristi said. “I’ve always loved watching and playing games. I’ve always loved everything about basketball.”

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