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It might be at a fund-raising event or during a football game, while she's at a gas station or on an airplane. Time and again, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow is buttonholed by male boosters who want to rehash last April's NCAA women's basketball title game in Boston. These men don't just tell her that they saw it; they recount in detail where they were when the Terrapins overcame a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Duke 78--75 in overtime. There was the guy who incurred his wife's wrath when he blew off her uncle's wake to catch the second half. There was the Maryland alum and his friend who had gone to a New York City bar to grab a bite but found that neither they nor anyone else in the place could tear themselves away from the TV. "The team's success is personal to these guys now," says Yow. "Not only do they know the name of the player who took The Shot, but they also know the name of the Duke player who was guarding her."
Such is the lasting magic of Kristi Toliver's three-point swish, that fearless fadeaway from the right wing that just cleared the fingertips of Duke's 6'7" center Alison Bales and tied the game at 70 with 6.1 seconds left in regulation. It was at once a historic shot and a defining statement for the Maryland program, saying to the world, We're young, confident and uncowed.
So what if the 5'7" point guard had 12 turnovers in the semifinal game against North Carolina? So what if she had missed eight of her nine first-half shots against Duke? So what if she was a freshman? "Our staff agreed that Kristi should take the shot," says coach Brenda Frese. "But all our players wanted to take it."
That's just one reason the Terrapins are favored to repeat as champions: All the starters are back from last year's 34--4 team--and every one of them is a go-to player. (All five were McDonald's All-Americans in high school.) " Maryland doesn't have role players," says Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini, whose team lost to the Terps 92--67 last December in College Park. "There is no one you can double-team, because the others will make you pay."
Last season's team was so balanced (every starter averaged in double figures) and still far enough under the radar that no Terp made the Kodak All-America team. This year, however, four starters-- Toliver, senior guard Shay Doron, sophomore forward Marissa Coleman and junior center Crystal Langhorne--made the preseason list of the top 25 candidates for the Wade Trophy, awarded to the best player in the country. (Left out was 6'4" junior forward Laura Harper; all she did was win the Most Outstanding Player award at the Final Four after scoring 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds against Duke.) Adding to the embarrassment of riches is junior point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, the 2004 Parade high school player of the year, who transferred from Tennessee last year and will become eligible to play for Maryland in December. Chronic tendinitis in her knees may limit Wiley-Gatewood's minutes, but when she is on the floor, the already up-tempo Terps will move at a blistering pace. "Kristi is very calm, very cerebral," says Harper. "Sa'de just goes."
Wiley-Gatewood's presence will give Toliver, a converted shooting guard, the occasional opportunity to move back to her natural position and focus on what she does best--hoisting shots. When Toliver was a toddler in Harrisonburg, Va., her father, George, a former NBA referee who is now the supervisor of officials for the NBA developmental league, used a tiny ball with a hand printed on it to show her the proper shooting form. Growing up, Kristi viewed hundreds of NBA games in person, on TV or on videotape. Afterward, she'd head outside and rehearse the moves she liked, filing into her muscle memory a library of NBA highlights. The Shot, she'll tell you, was influenced by San Antonio Spurs guard Sean Elliott's Memorial Day Miracle three-pointer that beat Portland 86--85 in Game 2 of the '99 Western Conference Finals, while the dribble right and step back left move that preceded it was inspired by what Michael Jordan, her favorite player, did right before his game-winner against Utah in Game 6 of the '98 NBA Finals. "That Bulls game was on TV while I was supposed to be taking my nap before the final against Duke," says Toliver. "What were the chances? I didn't nap. I just watched."
Keeping Maryland's constellation of stars in alignment is the task of the 36-year-old Frese, who is beginning her fifth year at Maryland. The fourth of Bill and Donna Frese's six children, she is one of three hypercompetitive sisters who all earned basketball scholarships (Marsha, 34, played at Rice, and Stacy, 30, was an All-- Big 12 guard at Iowa State), Brenda had already made her mark as a turnaround artist even before last year's stunning championship.
After a promising playing career at Arizona was cut short by foot problems, Frese jumped into coaching while she was still a senior, volunteering as an assistant at Pima ( Ariz.) Community College. After serving as an assistant at Kent State in 1994--95, she moved on to Iowa State, where she helped coach Bill Fennelly revamp a downtrodden program. "Bill was the perfect role model to learn from about rebuilding," says Frese. "I saw how much energy you have to come in with every day."
After four seasons in Ames, Frese, then 29, got her first head coaching job, at Ball State, and led the Cardinals, who had averaged 9.4 wins a season over the previous nine years, to a 19--9 record in her second year. That brought an offer to resurrect Minnesota, which had gone 8--20 in 2000--01. Frese coaxed 22 wins and an NCAA second-round appearance out of the players she inherited, and was named the Associated Press coach of the year--but the award didn't gather any dust. Maryland had just lost coach Chris Weller, who retired after 27 years at the school, and Frese agreed to terms with Yow on a six-year deal the day before the Maryland men beat Indiana for the NCAA title in Atlanta. She got hammered in the Twin Cities press for her lack of loyalty, but she doesn't apologize for leaving. "Whether it was my personality or the personalities within the administration, the fit wasn't there," she says.
Besides, Frese was intrigued by the possibilities she saw at Maryland. The Terps had been to two Final Fours in the 1980s under Weller, but the women hadn't won even a conference championship since '89 and had averaged just 13 wins in Weller's last four seasons. None of that fazed Frese. She boldly pursued the blue-chippers that Tennessee, Connecticut and Duke were accustomed to getting, ignoring what she didn't have--recent success or consistent fan support--and pitching what she did: a youthful staff, a diverse student body, strong academics, a powerful conference and the new, 17,900-seat Comcast Center. Most effectively, she appealed to recruits' pioneer spirit, thereby turning the successes of Connecticut and Tennessee, with their 11 titles between them, into negatives. Why go somewhere to win a sixth or seventh championship, she'd ask players, when you could come here and win the first?