Maturity Curve Hasn't Always Been Easy For Terrapins Stars Toliver And Coleman
By Milton Kent
The phrase "We watched them grow up before our eyes" seems tailor-made for Maryland's Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman.
|After winning the title their freshman year, Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman hope to lead the Terps back to the Final Four after a loss in the Elite Eight last year and a second-round exit two years ago.
Wasn't it just yesterday that Toliver hit that miracle three-pointer to force overtime in the national championship game against Duke? And wasn't it just a moment or so ago that Coleman was sinking pressure free throws in that overtime to clinch the school's first women's basketball title?
The two of them were callow freshmen then. Three seasons later, having combined for more than 3,400 points and nearly 400 three-pointers, Coleman and Toliver are taking stock of their brilliant careers.
"It's kind of hard to believe," said Coleman, a 6-foot-1 forward. "It (the senior year) came a lot quicker than I would like, but I am trying to embrace it and take each day and really seize the moment and enjoy each day for what it's worth."
Likewise, Toliver, a 5-foot-7 guard, has been measuring the stages of her personal growth.
"I feel more steady," Toliver said. "Coming into Maryland, I was inexperienced on a lot of levels, just with the city and dealing with time management and things like that. I feel now in such a good place and at such a comfort level of this place. It's just a good feeling coming from then until now."
Of course, the pair hopes they have grown enough in a basketball sense to lead the Terps back to the Final Four after a loss in the Elite Eight last year and a shocking second-round exit two years ago.
"I think we're doing a pretty good job, but at the same time it still feels like the national championship was yesterday," said Toliver after a recent win over Mississippi State. "It (experience) goes both ways, but that's what keeps our confidence up, knowing that we have that ring and we have that potential to reach that goal again."
Their performances in that title game three years ago are a part of Terrapin lore. Toliver's three-pointer with 6.1 seconds left to force overtime still graces the video screen at Comcast Center before each game.
What many don't recall is that Coleman had a pair of double-doubles in that Final Four, with 12 points and 14 rebounds in the national semifinal game against North Carolina.
Coleman, who had 10 points and 14 boards in the title game, scored Maryland's final points in overtime as well as pulling down the team's last three rebounds in the extra frame.
Clearly, Coleman and Toliver, who have posted a 95-14 mark over their first three years, as well as All-America designations and awards as ACC Rookie of the Year and as the nation's top point guard, have proven their mettle on the floor.
The two of them are supremely confident in their own individual abilities and in each other, nearly to the point of cockiness.
And why not? Score 35 in a desperate attempt to keep your team alive in the NCAA tournament, as Toliver did in the regional final loss to Stanford last year, or notch the first triple-double in school history, as Coleman did two years ago, and you earn the right to strongly believe in yourselves.
"That just comes from knowing each other as long as we have, not only the AAU days and playing against each other, but being familiar with her game and her being familiar with mine,'' said Coleman.
Their basketball gifts are substantial. Coleman, for instance, has been called a match-up nightmare because of her versatility, witness her status as the third player in ACC history and the first Terp to amass 1,500 points, 700 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 blocks for a career.
Coleman, a native of Cheltenham who has been named second-team All-ACC three times and the league's Rookie of the Year in 2006, began the season as a career 39 percent three-point shooter. She has an outside shot to become the program's all-time leading scorer.
Coleman should be a high WNBA draft choice, and may play her best basketball as a professional.
"Coaches are going to have a lot of fun with her," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "Her versatility is going to separate her at the next level. She's going to be able to fill a lot of holes. You get one player who can play four positions? That usually doesn't happen."
Toliver, whose father George was an NBA referee, has put together a solid career resume of her own. She was named to the prestigious Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-America team last year, as well as being selected the winner of the Nancy Lieberman Award, presented each year to the nation's top point guard.
Toliver is already Maryland's all-time assist and three-point leader, and will finish her career among the top five all-time in assists in the ACC.
Debbie Antonelli, a television basketball analyst, likens Toliver's game to that of Davidson junior Stephen Curry. Antonelli says Curry and Toliver, both converted shooting guards, have exhibited a knack for creating havoc in transition.
"Kristi will weave through traffic,"said Antonelli, who does ACC, Big 12 and WNBA games on television. "She'll change sides of the floor. She kind of floats through and tries to get a big (player) to guard her because then it's a mismatch right away, then she can launch the three or take it to the basket.
"If she drives through the paint on a big, usually there's somebody that's going to be open, because there's another mismatch somewhere and she's going to find it. That's what Stephen Curry does. It's very artistic."
But most of what Coleman and Toliver have done to date occurred when they were complements to Langhorne, Shay Doron and Laura Harper, their starting mates on the title team and all high WNBA draft selections.
Coleman and Toliver are now the team's leaders, the role models a squad with only two other upperclassmen on its roster desperately needs.
Previously, Toliver struggled most with the cloak of leadership. Two years ago, heading into the tournament where they would attempt to defend their title, Frese benched Toliver for her unwillingness to be more vocal on the court.
Both the team and Toliver were thrown by the benching, and Maryland was unceremoniously bounced in the second round by Mississippi, a team it had beaten handily in the regular season.
Toliver took the lesson to heart, enrolling that offseason in a point guard school in her hometown of Harrisonburg, Va. She is still not Magic Johnson-effusive, but she and Frese have found a coexistence that both can live with.
"You can't change a person's personality and she's not a rah-rah emotional player," said Frese. "She has definitely improved and she's gone outside of her comfort level. I think she's done a tremendous job for us given who she is and the expectations we have for her."
"I know they were searching for that leader in myself very early on in my career here," Toliver said. "But I felt that my time would come and I didn't feel that was the time yet. I knew that through the course of everything, things would happen as they should. I think now's the time when Marissa and I have both stepped up."
As for Coleman, her struggles with leadership this year have been perhaps adjusting to the absence of Langhorne and Harper, both of whom were vocal on and off the floor.
"It's been an adjustment," Coleman said. "At times, I'm so used to having players around me who are just as vocal as me or show that emotion on the court. It was an adjustment, but it's something that you have to work through."
Their evolution into leadership is still a work in progress. Toliver was suspended for a game in late December for an unspecified violation of team rules. In the game in which Toliver returned, Coleman was benched for the final 16 minutes of the game for what Frese called "uninspired" play.
But leadership may just be little more than a word for Coleman and Toliver, who have demonstrated that their actions as champions speak louder than mere words.
"This team has a lot of potential to do great things," Toliver said. "It's January and that's where the real fun starts with ACC play. We have a great shot of winning some games and having some fun and that's really what I am looking forward to. The next level is not going anywhere. We're extremely excited about it, but we still have unfinished business here."
Issue 133: January 2009