Kristi Toliver - as the kids are apt to say - kept it real.
The freshman point guard showed a sense of calm and bravado that eclipsed her age and helped her power the Maryland women's basketball team to a 78-75 overtime win over Duke last night that gave the Terrapins their first national championship in school history.
Toliver, 19, scored 16 points on 6-for-18 shooting in the NCAA tournament final, but none was bigger than the three she contributed when she connected from beyond the arc to send the game into overtime.
After Duke senior guard Jessica Foley converted two free throws to give the Blue Devils a 70-67 lead with 18.8 seconds left in regulation, Toliver lost junior guard Lindsey Harding off screens set by freshman forward Marissa Coleman and sophomore center Crystal Langhorne.
Toliver then launched an arching shot over the outstretched right hand of 6-foot-7 junior center Alison Bales from behind the three-point arc, and the ball touched nothing but net.
In overtime, Toliver made two free throws to give Maryland a 76-75 edge, her team's first lead in the extra period, with 34.2 seconds left. Coleman then grabbed a rebound of a missed jumper by Duke freshman guard Abby Waner and hit two free throws to end the scoring and the game.
But much of the talk afterward centered on Toliver's heroics at the end of regulation.
"Kristi Toliver knew what she needed to do," a breathless Terps coach Brenda Frese said. "She's practiced that shot a million times in her backyard and in her mind."
Assistant coach Jeff Walz said the play was designed for Toliver to rub Harding off the first screen and send the ball out to Coleman or Shay Doron for a three-point shot. But another option was Toliver keeping the ball and taking a shot herself.
"In my opinion, big-time players want the ball in big-time situations," said Toliver, who also had four assists against three turnovers. "So I wanted to take the shot."
In four games against the Blue Devils this season, Toliver has scored 63 points on 22-for-55 shooting, had 16 assists, and committed just 10 turnovers.
Duke coach Gail Goestenkors had no regrets about the defense her team set up on Toliver's shot.
"We switched on all screens because we knew they were going to set some screens on the ball to try and get somebody open and Ali ended up on Toliver," Goestenkors said. "She had to shoot over a 6-7 person, and she did."
Toliver has registered several major performances this season.
She scored a career-high 28 points in Maryland's 75-65 overtime victory over Utah in the Albuquerque Regional final eight days ago. She recorded a career-high 12 assists in a first-round win over Sacred Heart. And she had 17 points in the team's first loss of the season, to then-No. 2 Tennessee.
But those efforts paled in comparison to last night, Toliver said.
"That was definitely the biggest shot of my career," she said. "I practiced that a lot when I was little. Kids always practice those miraculous shots. I just put it to work."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times