Commentary

Coleman, Toliver true leaders for Terps

Stellar seniors have made their mark on Sweet 16-bound Maryland

Updated: March 25, 2009, 10:15 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- There are times when the things Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman do on a basketball court make it difficult to believe your own eyes. But in person, it doesn't take a replay to verify the moment.

All you have to do is listen for the roar.

[+] EnlargeMarissa Coleman
AP Photo/Jim DietzMarissa Coleman brought a double-double to the table Tuesday against Utah.

It was there Tuesday as Coleman swatted a Utah player's shot from behind in the post, the ball ricocheting off the backboard with the force of a volleyball spike early in the first half of Maryland's second-round game. It was there as Toliver raced up the court in transition and rifled a pass through traffic to Marah Strickland on the baseline for a layup. It started as collective gasp and rose to a crescendo of full-throated contentment.

Only by the closing moments of a 71-56 win that sent top-seeded Maryland to a Sweet 16 date with Vanderbilt in the Raleigh Regional semifinal had the roar subsided, replaced by the appreciative applause more familiar to outcomes long since decided.

"We were just really in sync in terms of each and every player, being led by our two special seniors to set the tone and set the intensity early," Terrapins coach Brenda Frese said.

For a few minutes early in Tuesday's game, it seemed like this encounter might play out with similar dramatics as the game in Albuquerque. Maryland was the slower team out of the gates, letting the undersized Utes pick up a pair of offensive rebounds on their first possession. Finding room out of her team's motion sets, Morgan Warburton repeatedly turned the corner on the Terrapins, and post Katie King found herself mysteriously wide open for the kind of baseline and elbow jump shots she has hit all season.

But from a 15-8 deficit, Maryland roared back behind its two stars. By the time Toliver took an outlet near midcourt with less than 10 seconds left in the half, locked her eyes on the clock as she corralled the ball and turned and snapped a pass to Strickland for another layup, the Terrapins were up by 16 points and safe from whatever second-half runs Utah had in it.

In the end, the Utes never came up with an answer for Coleman, who finished with 18 points and 18 rebounds, or Toliver, who added 17 points and four assists. Standouts from the moment they first suited up for Frese (they combined for 32 points in their college debut), both have nonetheless grown with each passing season.

Maryland assistant Daron Park has as good a perspective on the pair's development as anyone. Before joining Frese's staff last season, Park tried to find the flaws in Toliver's and Coleman's games as an assistant on the Utah team that nearly derailed the Terps' championship run in 2006 in a regional final.

"What was impressive was just their natural ability," Park said of scouting the then-freshmen opponents. "At that time of their career, they just had superior ability. And they knew it, and they were confident about it, and it oozed out of them. Our challenge, when I was there at Utah, was to really see if we could limit the things they did exceptionally. And because they were freshmen, they did a couple of things really, really good. And so we worked very hard to try to take away those things. And what you've seen over the last three years is now they do a bunch of things really, really good because they've done a nice job of being developed over the last three years."

Kristi Toliver
AP Photo/Jim DietzKristi Toliver and the Terps face Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.

It's easy to see the results on the court. Against the din of the cheers they elicit, Toliver and Coleman seem to have their own unspoken means of communication. And where they were great individually and good together as freshmen on a championship team, they're now even better individually but also nearly unstoppable together.

"It's a 180 to compare," Toliver said. "Obviously, in those days, we had that season, we had All-America games together, but it's nothing compared to the 3½ years we've had now. I know where she wants [the ball], when she wants it and likewise."

But this is also a team that went from playing the victim in one of the biggest upsets of the opening month of the season in a 12-point loss against TCU to the group that coasted into the Sweet 16 in a way that validated its unofficial label as Connecticut's biggest roadblock. And that had something to do with the way both stars stepped up in leadership roles for a team that also starts a freshman, a junior college transfer and a sophomore.

"It's definitely on the player," Frese said of leadership, something she said couldn't project for Toliver and Coleman as freshmen -- and didn't need then with players such as Shay Doron, Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper around. "As a coach, you keep working and trying to reinforce different things, but the player has to want to do it. And they have to take some ownership with it. And we've just been very fortunate that Marissa and KT have bought into how important their leadership was for this team."

It's those lessons, learned in disappointing finishes the past two seasons -- an underwhelming second-round exit in 2007 and a loss in a game for the ages against Stanford last season -- that Coleman and Toliver will keep offering to their teammates in Raleigh.

That's why we came to Maryland. We didn't want to go to a team that was already established; we wanted to start something new. And I think that we have.

--Kristi Toliver

"I think [winning a championship as freshmen] may have a given us a little false sense of it being easy," Coleman said. "But we learned that it's not. If you look at last year and the year after we won it, on paper, we were supposed to win the national championship. But it doesn't always come down to that. That's what we're telling our young players right now. Everybody is talking about UConn right now -- on paper, UConn is supposed to win the national championship, but it doesn't always work out that way. … Just because they're 33-0 doesn't mean that they're guaranteed this national championship."

A number of quirks of history were at play Tuesday night in the Comcast Center. Coleman and Toliver played on their home court for the final time, underneath their own numbers, which were retired on senior day. The Terrapins played against the team they helped beat in overtime three years ago to advance to the Final Four. And they took instruction from Park, who helped design the Utah game plan that nearly stopped them in 2006.

But for all the reminders of the championship run in the air, nothing summed up Toliver's and Coleman's tenure quite like a second-round game on the same court the year before they arrived in College Park.

When the Terrapins lost to Ohio State in the second round in 2005, there were 4,062 fans on hand at the Comcast Center, right around the average home attendance for the season.

Minus those few who made early exits Tuesday, there were 10,065 fans serenading the seniors as they walked to the bench for the last time in the closing minutes.

"That's why we came to Maryland," Toliver said. "We didn't want to go to a team that was already established; we wanted to start something new. And I think that we have.

"When Marissa and I came here, we knew this was going to be a great team in time, and it's finally developed into that from our freshman year to now. And it just shows how much growth has happened at Maryland -- how much interest there is to come out and watch the women play."

And that's why if you want to know how good Toliver and Coleman are, all you really have to do is listen to the roar. You might even be able to hear it all the way from St. Louis.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.