- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

SPOKANE, Wash. — Crystal Langhorne was offered a hypothetical about Kristi Toliver’s virtuoso eight-point, eight-assist, one-turnover performance in Maryland’s Sweet 16 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday night: What would she have thought if she was told beforehand Toliver’s first shot wouldn’t come until 19-plus minutes into the game?

“I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Langhorne said. “That was one of the best games she’s ever played, distributing the ball, breaking down the defense, making it possible for us to get easy shots.”

Such is the progress Toliver has made this season, her third as the Terrapins’ starting point guard.

Two years ago, maybe even last year, Toliver would distribute to Langhorne and Co. but also feel the need to hoist a couple of 3-pointers to feel really involved in the offensive effort.

But in the Terrapins’ 80-66 win over Vanderbilt, Toliver was the epitome of a point guard, creating chances for teammates instead of trying to score.

“I could flat out score in high school, so maybe [as a freshman] I would have wanted to incorporate my scoring into what we were doing,” Toliver said yesterday after Maryland’s practice inside Spokane Arena. “But I think I have a good feel for the game. And [Saturday] night people were open, and my job was getting them good looks.”

Getting others involved offensively again will be crucial for Toliver tonight when top-seeded Maryland (33-3) plays No. 2 seed Stanford (33-3) for a berth in next week’s Women’s Final Four in Tampa, Fla.

Stanford, which enters on a 21-game winning streak, was effusive in its praise of Toliver, whose 270 assists are Maryland and ACC single-season records.

“She’s pretty much the glue of their team,” said Candice Wiggins, Stanford’s glue and Pac-10 player of the year. “It’s going to be one of those things that, whoever is on her, they have to work hard and make things as tough as possible for her. We’re not going to shut down Kristi, but we want to make her work so all of her shots and all of her passes are tough.”

As somebody who always wants the basketball in her mitts down the stretch, being a team’s heartbeat is something Toliver embraces.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I think that’s why I’ve been so successful at my job this year. It took me two years to figure out what a real point guard should do and how it’s not just scoring and dishing the ball. Like Candice said, it’s being the steady one, the person who holds it together, the emotional leader.”

This season, with the assist record, the career-high 16.6-point average and first-team All-ACC recognition, has been a bounce back for Toliver.

Last year, she started the first 32 games before coming off the bench in two NCAA tournament games. It was the final straw in a forgettable season.

“A lot of that season didn’t feel right, so I decided I needed to regain my confidence, regain my focus and freshen things up in my game,” Toliver said. “I felt like I needed to fall in love with the game again. When the season ended, I was disinterested. I was sick of the game for a second.”

Toliver said she didn’t consider transferring — “I just wanted to be happy again.”

To that end, she attended the five-day Point Guard College in her hometown of Harrisonburg, Va. Run by former Virginia player Dena Evans, the seminar involves classroom, video review, fundamental drills and scrimmages.

“It was a long week, and it was exhausting, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Toliver said. “That camp got my passion back, which is what I definitely needed to happen.”

While she can still make a bad decision with an errant pass or ill-advised 3-point shot, Toliver and coach Brenda Frese have mostly found a common ground.

“The floor game she played [Saturday] shows you just how far she’s come and how much she’s grown,” Frese said. “It’s a credit to Kristi and all the hard work she’s put in.”

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