- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

As soon as the ball left her hand, Kristi Toliver knew she had authored the greatest play in Maryland women’s basketball history.

It has been nine months since Toliver’s dramatic last-second 3-pointer forced overtime against Duke in last year’s national championship game, but “the Shot” still reverberates through College Park.

With 6.1 seconds left in the title game, Toliver dribbled the ball upcourt, veering to the right. The freshman pulled up from behind the arc with Duke’s 6-foot-7 center Alison Bales lunging for a piece of Toliver’s shot. On her follow-through, Toliver felt Bales’ fingers touch her extended right hand. The ball fell through the cylinder, putting Maryland into overtime on its way to the program’s first national championship.

“I had no hesitation in taking that shot,” Toliver said. “I had complete confidence in it just knowing that I’ve done it before. I had the ball in my hands so I just decided to shoot it.”

Today at sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium, No. 3 Duke (17-0, 3-0 ACC) faces the No. 1 Terps (18-0, 2-0) for the first time since the championship last April 4 in Boston.

Toliver’s shot remains a haunting reminder for the Blue Devils.

“I don’t think that shot, or the image of that shot, will ever leave any of our minds completely,” Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. “Fortunately, we’re given the opportunity just about once a week to see it on ACC Live. I’m sure the media will not let us forget that shot if we ever thought we could.”

Plays such as Toliver’s are what legends are made of. With games on the line, great players rise to the occasion to take the big shot.

Although Toliver, who hails from Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley, was playing in just her 38th college game, Maryland coach Brenda Frese trusted the freshman with the final shot. Defying her youth, Toliver answered the call like a savvy, seasoned veteran.

“We knew as the game was unfolding that we wanted Toliver to take the shot,” Frese said. “We didn’t run it exactly as diagrammed. If her shot got blocked, nobody would be mentioning her name. Now, she’s a household name.”

Only one other time has the NCAA women’s championship game featured a shot as clutch as Toliver’s. In the 1994 title game in Richmond, North Carolina forward Charlotte Smith — the niece of basketball legend David Thompson — came off a double screen on the right wing and nailed an improbable buzzer-beating 3-pointer to stun Louisiana Tech 60-59 and hand the Tar Heels their only national championship.

Until last April, Smith had cornered the women’s basketball market for instant stardom.

But, when March Madness draws near, television promotions hyping this year’s women’s NCAA tournament undoubtedly will have Toliver’s remarkable shot as part of any video montage.

“Kristi had a lot of options on that play, we put it [ball] in her hands and made the right decision,” senior guard Shay Doron said.

Born with a basketball

Toliver was learning basketball fundamentals before she could walk. Her father, George, an NBA referee, exposed her to the game from an early age.

Whenever George Toliver was home in Harrisonburg, Va., watching games or game tapes, his infant daughter would sit and watch with him. That’s when Dad discovered his daughter’s keen interest in the game. He noticed how she liked playing with balls and other sports-related items, and he started teaching her the game. George Toliver said he taught his youngest daughter certain fundamentals by non-conventional methods.

“I bought her a little Dr. J, K-Mart basket, and I didn’t use the basketball that came with it, the little tiny basketball, I used tennis balls so I could simulate the follow-through and the wrist action of the shooting,” he said. “Essentially, we would spend hours in the basement playing shooting games and who could make how many in a row. She would just have repetition, shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. We had a good time with it. It was bonding time, but it was still skill work, too.”

That specialized training at an early age has paid off. Kristi Toliver is the ACC’s leading 3-point shooter, having made 35-for-67 this season for an impressive 52.2 percent.

His ball-handling instruction was unique as well. Perhaps the worst habit children pick up playing basketball is keeping their heads down and looking at the ball when they dribble. George Toliver made sure his daughter developed a feel for the ball.

“I took her in the basement and we’d do drills in the dark, dribbling drills and ball-handling drills, so she couldn’t watch the ball,” he said.

As Kristi Toliver got older, she accompanied her father to NBA games. She has watched the Dream Team play. She tagged along with her dad on some overseas assignments.

“My development started at a very early age, earlier than most kids I would imagine, just fundamentally and just having the basketball IQ, understanding the game, which not a lot of people do early on in their playing career,” Toliver said. “I was blessed to have the resources that I did.”

Under her father’s tutelage, she developed into a basketball player quicker than most. She was ready to play competitively at the youth level before she was old enough to join the league.

“When she was young, I asked the rec department if they would let her play in the league before she was that age because her skill level was good enough,” George Toliver said. “They said bring her over and we’ll take a look at her. It wasn’t about 30 seconds later they said, “Oh yeah, she can play and we put her in the league.”

Geno was here

Frese’s jaw nearly hit the floor when she first glanced into Toliver’s bedroom during a recruiting trip. It was a Connecticut shrine. Posters of UConn greats Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash adorned the walls.

This, Frese knew, was going to be a tough sell.

Kristi Toliver grew up idolizing the Huskies because they were on television so often. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma’s pitch to Toliver was a pretty simple one: Come to Storrs, Conn., win a national championship, and be the latest in a long line of great UConn point guards following Bird and Taurasi.

“Growing up, I was a big UConn girl,” Toliver said. “I was a huge Sue Bird fan, still am, and once she left, Taurasi is everybody’s favorite. When talking to Coach B [Frese] during the recruiting process, I remember saying how this team could be like that UConn team, how special they were.”

But when the recruiting war first opened for the 5-foot-7 point guard, Frese initially thought Toliver was signed, sealed and delivered to Virginia Tech. Toliver had attended basketball camps in Blacksburg, Va., run by former Hokies coach Bonnie Henrickson and developed a relationship.

But Henrickson accepted a job at Kansas and Toliver had no interest in heading to the Great Plains.

Maryland offered Toliver the opportunity to make an immediate impact. Toliver also wanted to help take a team to its first national championship, rather than add to a school’s pile.

“[Maryland] needed a point guard because the one [Anesia Smith] just graduated,” Toliver said. “I knew that I would be able to do a lot of special things and that we had a lot of special players here. It’s in the ACC. It’s close to home. My family and friends will be able to come and watch. For me, it was just a perfect fit, and it offered me what I needed as a player.”

During the recruiting process, her father was there just for guidance. George Toliver wasn’t going to influence his daughter’s decision, but he also wasn’t going to let her make a mistake.

“I remember coming home one day and said, ‘Kristi, we haven’t talked about recruiting for a while. Is there anything you want to talk about?’ ” he recalled. “We went out and we’re sitting at the table across from one another and I said, ‘What’s up? What are we down to now? Are we getting close in this decision? What do you got for me?’

“She kind of bowed her head and I thought, ‘Oh my God, she doesn’t want to talk about recruiting.’ So I said, ‘We don’t have to talk about recruiting. I just thought maybe you were there.’ She bowed her head again and pointed to her shirt and she had on a Maryland T-shirt. I said, ‘Have you made your decision?’ she said, ‘Yes, I want to got to Maryland.’ ”

Deep threat

When her playing career is over, Toliver wants to be known for more than just “the Shot.”

She’s off to a good start.

The top-ranked Terps appear poised to defend their national championship with Toliver running the second-highest scoring team (88.8 points a game) in the country.

Barring injury, Toliver is on pace to rewrite the school’s record books for 3-point shooting. Her 52.2 percentage from behind the arc this season is the highest single-season mark.

Toliver already has made 123 3-pointers in just 1 seasons, which ranks fourth in Maryland history. Tiffany Brown (1997-2000) holds the school record with 172 3-pointers.

“She has a special ability to shoot the ball,” Frese said. “She’s spent countless hours and repetitions on her shot. As a freshman, she led the team to the NCAA title, but is never satisfied with her game.”

On a team full of weapons, Toliver makes Maryland go. As the point guard, she’s the engine that runs Maryland’s high-octane machine. In addition to her shooting stroke, Toliver is second in the ACC with 5.7 assists a game.

“She’s gotten so much better this year, especially with the addition of Sa’de [Wiley-Gatewood], she’s learning a lot and feels real comfortable in our offense,” Doron said. “She definitely feels like she fits now and you can obviously tell that she’s really comfortable.”

There might not be a better all-around point guard in women’s college basketball. Toliver is a preseason Wade Trophy and a preseason Naismith Award candidate.

“I’m focused on this year, my sophomore year in college, and getting back to the Final Four and just try and improve my game and continue to show people different aspects of my game,” Toliver said. “I don’t want to be just remembered for the shot that I made my freshman year. I want to show everybody every game what I’m capable of doing and what this team is capable of doing.”

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