Toliver eager to move on from 'The Shot'
Maryland freshman Kristi Toliver always wanted to take it. She had spent the first 17 years of her life preparing for that moment. She wanted to help her team win a national championship.
And last April, Toliver got her wish.
Toliver's high, arcing 3-pointer forced the 2006 national championship game into overtime, where the Terps defeated Duke 78-75 to win the program's first title.
That shot propelled Toliver out of relative obscurity and into the realm of college basketball icons whose names and faces are forever linked to memorable moments in big games.
Charlotte Smith. Lorenzo Charles. Christian Laettner. Keith Smart. Kristi Toliver.
Now enjoying a sophomore season that is off to an 18-0 start, Toliver's indifference to being singled out from her teammates has been tested ever since that historic shot last spring. The requests for appearances, interviews and autographs cranked up considerably. The attention has intensified this week as an ACC showdown -- and rematch -- with Duke looms Saturday in Durham, N.C.
But while the media's approach to her has changed, Toliver hasn't. The 5-foot-7 guard -- who is averaging 11.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists, with an impressive 2.22 assist-to-turnover ratio -- still carries herself with a quiet confidence and poise beyond her years. She has not forgotten that her day in the sun started in a very dark place, down in the basement of the family's home on Portland Street in Harrisonburg, Va. The only guiding lights were her dad and a dream.
"I was a little girl and my dad put a tennis ball in my hand and told me to start dribbling," Toliver recalled. "After practicing for a while I thought I was pretty good at it. That's when he turned out the lights. It was pitch black and he said, 'OK, let's see how you do now.' He wanted me to have good fundamentals, to make the ball feel like an extension of my hand."
Kristi's father, George Toliver, was not your average basketball dad. He was an NBA referee. He spent his nights keeping a close eye on some of the greatest players in the game's history. George was more than happy to tap into the information gleaned from NBA courts to take home to his daughters, Kristi and sister Carli, who played at Lehigh from 2001-05.
"I realized early that the majority of even the good players in the NBA didn't have a solid foundation," recalled George, who still works with the league as a supervisor of officials. "The ones that knew the fundamentals and could put them to work, those guys were the best."
That's what George wanted to teach the girls, and he did it the old-fashioned way. Kristi worked up to a training ball with a hand print on it, and as she got older and stronger she eventually got to handle a regulation size ball. It helped her develop tremendous touch.
But there was still much more to learn, and when George turned the lights back on, the rim on the "Dr. J" basketball net down in the basement awaited. He set up a lane and 3-point arc on the floor. Again, the training involved smaller balls for smaller hands, slowly working Kristi up to a regulation size. It helped her focus on her shooting form and motion, making for a more natural stroke.
"I was down in the basement every day," said Toliver, who also hit a pair of clutch free throws in overtime to secure the title last April. "I loved it down there with my dad and my sister. We would work on moves, we would pretend we were big shots. Then we would interview each other and bust out laughing."
Added George: "I emphasized the follow-through and finish. Then I worked back to balance and squaring up the feet and shoulders. We'd make things fun by doing ballhandling in the dark and playing Around the World and H-O-R-S-E."
The replay of the championship-game shot that millions of us have seen was actually first taken on a court in the Tolivers' backyard.
"When we moved outside with the nicer weather, Kristi wanted a Michael Jordan hoop," George said. "I'd watch her out back every day making the game-winning shot just like the one she would hit in Boston years later."
The fact that Kristi was five years younger than Carli also had an affect on the younger Toliver's shooting touch. Since they couldn't play one-on-one, the girls would spend much of their time in shooting competitions, with their mom shouting out support. Kristi still claims Carli is the best shooter in the family. Her career at Lehigh was cut short by a knee injury.
The lessons were being taught not just on the court. Father and daughter not only played the game but also studied it. When you talk to a lot of college players today, many will tell you they are not really fans, they don't watch much basketball. Growing up, Kristi could not get enough.
"We would watch tape together, and I would take notes on what the NBA guys were doing," Kristi said. "Kevin Johnson was my idol, and I also liked B.J. Armstrong. I tried to copy Tim Hardaway's killer crossover. And then there was Michael. I guess I got my confidence from watching Jordan. I loved his attitude and mental toughness. The women's game needs more of that, and I wanted to play the way he did."
During those film sessions, her father also was quick to point what was happening with the players who didn't have the ball.
"Kristi could see how hard Reggie Miller worked without the ball," George said. "She picked up the timing of Rip Hamilton getting ready to receive the ball, she understood how John Stockton set up his teammates in a position to shoot it. I stressed to think not in the moment, but about what's coming next."
That advice served Kristi well in the NCAA Tournament, starting with the regional final against Utah, when a stomach flu nearly sidetracked the Terrapins' train. What was happening in the moment wasn't very pleasant as the flu ravaged the team. Kristi called on some of that mental toughness.
"The stomach flu started with a cheerleader and then moved on to the band," Toliver said. "Sure enough, it got to our whole team. We were all sick, didn't get much sleep and couldn't even gather for the game-day shootaround. But I remembered one of Michael Jordan's best games was when he was sick against Utah in the NBA Finals one year. That helped me focus and relax."
Toliver tore through the Utes for 28 points, hitting six 3-pointers, to guide her team to the Final Four. If the freshman was feeling any pressure, it certainly did not show on that day as Maryland survived in overtime.
Then, in Boston, Toliver struggled through one of her poorest offensive performances of the season, committing 12 turnovers against North Carolina in the semifinals. But she never dwelled on the mistakes.
"I just tried to be positive with her and lighten up the mood," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "Kristi has the unique ability to move past plays, to bounce back from the negative and make positive ones. That's what helped us beat Carolina to get to the final."
Ah yes, the final. Once North Carolina was ousted, a lot of experts were picking Duke to win its first title. It was the perfect stage for Toliver to become part of NCAA Tournament lore. Hadn't she had already won the championship game a thousand times in the backyard?
Which brings us back to The Shot. On the afternoon of the final, Toliver says she watched Michael Jordan playing a game on ESPN Classic. She felt that had to be a good sign. Despite falling behind by as many as 13 points, Maryland never wavered.
As George Toliver often told his daughter, "Games are not lost in the first few minutes, but games clearly can be won in the last few minutes."
The way it played out in the waning seconds of regulation wasn't the way it was actually supposed to happen. There were other options for Toliver to consider.
"I was going to run off a screen and kick the ball to Marissa [Coleman]," Toliver recalled. "But I figured that would be a bad time to turn the ball over if I couldn't deliver it to her. So I kept it, and on the next screen Duke went under and there was [Duke center] Alison [Bales] on the switch right in front of me. Her 6-7 size may have actually helped because my shot had been flat all day and I needed to arc the ball higher to get it over her. I released, and on the follow-through her fingertips grazed mine."
Kristi's first thought watching the ball head toward the basket: "Money."
"It felt good as soon as I let it go," she said, "the best shot I had taken all day."
George's thought as he watched from the Maryland cheering section: "'This is good.' As soon as I saw her shoulders were squared to the rim I knew it was going in."
He also thought of a conversation he had with Kristi at the hotel earlier that afternoon. He says he reminded her of something they had always talked about when the game was on the line: Don't go at the little kid, go at the big girl because she'll have a tougher time defending you.
The Shot obviously did go in, and Maryland went on to claim the championship in overtime. Toliver cherishes both memories. As for the fame that has come along with it? That's another story. Her father says Kristi has always been a low-key kid and not much impressed by celebrity. Now, she is a celebrity.
"She wants to move past it," Frese said. "Kristi has a lot of good basketball ahead of her. 'The Shot' singles her out, and she is all about the team. She has handled it all so well. She'll save the tape to show her kids someday, but now her focus is the present and getting better."
Toliver is quick to add that the Terps are not dwelling on the 2006 title but rather focusing on the championship that will be contested this April.
The country's No. 1 team since the preseason polls were released, the Terps are favored to win it again, especially with most of Toliver's teammates back and the addition of point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood. Despite speculation that Wiley-Gatewood's transfer from Tennessee might damage Maryland's chemistry, the results so far prove that is not the case.
"A lot of people probably thought I would be threatened by Sa'de," Toliver said. "But it's actually a blessing in disguise. It gives us another ballhandler and another distributor, and it allows me to move over to the two-guard spot occasionally. It's a very unselfish team."
So while most of us will be spending time this week replaying The Shot in our minds, Toliver and her teammates will be busy preparing for Duke.
That was then and this is now. And as Frese constantly reminds her sophomore, "The biggest play is the next play."Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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