COLLEGE PARK – A few weeks after Kristi Toliver helped the University of Maryland women’s basketball team clinch its first national championship title, the freshman guard is still in a state of shock.
“It’s unbelievable, really,” Toliver said. “It is something that you always dream about — especially me being a basketball junkie as a kid.” She had enrolled in her first basketball camp at 6.
Said head coach Brenda Frese: “Our kids are like rock stars overnight. It has been pretty exciting to see.”
In the women’s NCAA championship game against Duke April 4, Toliver scored a key three-point basket that tied the score and forced the game into overtime. The team came back to beat the Blue Devils, 78 to 75.
“I have taken big shots like that before,” Toliver said. “But to actually do it in a big setting like that made it special. I was actually holding my breath when the buzzer went off.”
Frese said she and her assistant coaches knew Toliver thrived under pressure and were confident she could make the shot.
“We had enough time to discuss who we wanted the ball to go to,” Frese said. “We were all in unison on the bench that we wanted the play to go to Kristi” — whom Frese calls the “quiet assassin.”
Toliver said the few seconds she had to execute the shot seemed endless.
“It all kind of went in slow motion,” she said. “From being on the left side of the court and dribbling to the right. I followed the shot through and once I let it go, it felt pretty good.”
Despite a whirlwind of emotions, Toliver is adjusting to her new celebrity status. She said she and her teammates are instantly recognized and congratulated by fans in restaurants and by students on campus.
Since the big win in Boston, the team has made several public appearances, including a recent trip to the White House to meet President Bush. The team also visited the home of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.
Toliver said the experience of meeting Bush was “pretty cool,” adding it was nice to step on the White House lawn. When the team met Ehrlich and his family, his 6-year-old son, Drew, gave the team a poster drawing of Toliver’s game-tying shot.
Frese said she tells the team this adulation “is kind of in the moment, and that it is going to require a lot of hard work for us to get here next year.”
Something that did not require a lot of hard work, Toliver said, was her decision to attend the University of Maryland to play basketball. She said she had been recruited by many schools with elite women’s basketball programs, including Duke University, the University of Connecticut and the University of North Carolina.
The Harrisonburg, Va., native said she came to Maryland to help bring a national championship here.
Her father, George Toliver, who was an NBA referee for 14 years, said his youngest daughter told him she wanted to “win four national championships” when she came to Maryland — one for each of her academic years.
“I did not want to be another name on the wall,” Toliver said.
She had set a record at Harrisonburg High School in 2004 when she scored 52 points in a single game. Toliver was also selected as the 2005 Virginia State Gatorade Player of the Year.
She said she hopes her status as a member of the national championship team will help catapult her into a career with the WNBA.
“Ultimately, I definitely want a career in the WNBA,” she said. “I want to stay around the game for as long as I can.”