It might be at afund-raising event or during a football game, while she's at a gas station oron an airplane. Time and again, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow isbuttonholed by male boosters who want to rehash last April's NCAA women'sbasketball title game in Boston. These men don't just tell her that they sawit; they recount in detail where they were when the Terrapins overcame a13-point halftime deficit to beat Duke 78--75 in overtime. There was the guywho incurred his wife's wrath when he blew off her uncle's wake to catch thesecond half. There was the Maryland alum and his friend who had gone to a NewYork City bar to grab a bite but found that neither they nor anyone else in theplace could tear themselves away from the TV. "The team's success ispersonal to these guys now," says Yow. "Not only do they know the nameof the player who took The Shot, but they also know the name of the Duke playerwho was guarding her."
Such is thelasting magic of Kristi Toliver's three-point swish, that fearless fadeawayfrom the right wing that just cleared the fingertips of Duke's 6'7" centerAlison Bales and tied the game at 70 with 6.1 seconds left in regulation. Itwas 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 the5'7" point guard had 12 turnovers in the semifinal game against NorthCarolina? So what if she had missed eight of her nine first-half shots againstDuke? So what if she was a freshman? "Our staff agreed that Kristi shouldtake the shot," says coach Brenda Frese. "But all our players wanted totake it."
That's just onereason the Terrapins are favored to repeat as champions: All the starters areback from last year's 34--4 team--and every one of them is a go-to player. (Allfive were McDonald's All-Americans in high school.) "Maryland doesn't haverole players," says Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini, whose team lost to theTerps 92--67 last December in College Park. "There is no one you candouble-team, because the others will make you pay."
Last season'steam was so balanced (every starter averaged in double figures) and still farenough under the radar that no Terp made the Kodak All-America team. This year,however, four starters--Toliver, senior guard Shay Doron, sophomore forwardMarissa Coleman and junior center Crystal Langhorne--made the preseason list ofthe top 25 candidates for the Wade Trophy, awarded to the best player in thecountry. (Left out was 6'4" junior forward Laura Harper; all she did waswin the Most Outstanding Player award at the Final Four after scoring 16 pointsand grabbing seven rebounds against Duke.) Adding to the embarrassment ofriches is junior point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, the 2004 Parade high schoolplayer of the year, who transferred from Tennessee last year and will becomeeligible to play for Maryland in December. Chronic tendinitis in her knees maylimit Wiley-Gatewood's minutes, but when she is on the floor, the alreadyup-tempo Terps will move at a blistering pace. "Kristi is very calm, verycerebral," says Harper. "Sa'de just goes."
Wiley-Gatewood'spresence will give Toliver, a converted shooting guard, the occasionalopportunity to move back to her natural position and focus on what she doesbest--hoisting shots. When Toliver was a toddler in Harrisonburg, Va., herfather, George, a former NBA referee who is now the supervisor of officials forthe NBA developmental league, used a tiny ball with a hand printed on it toshow her the proper shooting form. Growing up, Kristi viewed hundreds of NBAgames in person, on TV or on videotape. Afterward, she'd head outside andrehearse the moves she liked, filing into her muscle memory a library of NBAhighlights. The Shot, she'll tell you, was influenced by San Antonio Spursguard Sean Elliott's Memorial Day Miracle three-pointer that beat Portland86--85 in Game 2 of the '99 Western Conference Finals, while the dribble rightand 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 ofthe '98 NBA Finals. "That Bulls game was on TV while I was supposed to betaking my nap before the final against Duke," says Toliver. "What werethe chances? I didn't nap. I just watched."
KeepingMaryland's constellation of stars in alignment is the task of the 36-year-oldFrese, who is beginning her fifth year at Maryland. The fourth of Bill andDonna Frese's six children, she is one of three hypercompetitive sisters whoall 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 aturnaround artist even before last year's stunning championship.
After a promisingplaying career at Arizona was cut short by foot problems, Frese jumped intocoaching while she was still a senior, volunteering as an assistant at Pima(Ariz.) Community College. After serving as an assistant at Kent State in1994--95, she moved on to Iowa State, where she helped coach Bill Fennellyrevamp a downtrodden program. "Bill was the perfect role model to learnfrom about rebuilding," says Frese. "I saw how much energy you have tocome in with every day."
After fourseasons in Ames, Frese, then 29, got her first head coaching job, at BallState, and led the Cardinals, who had averaged 9.4 wins a season over theprevious nine years, to a 19--9 record in her second year. That brought anoffer to resurrect Minnesota, which had gone 8--20 in 2000--01. Frese coaxed 22wins and an NCAA second-round appearance out of the players she inherited, andwas named the Associated Press coach of the year--but the award didn't gatherany dust. Maryland had just lost coach Chris Weller, who retired after 27 yearsat the school, and Frese agreed to terms with Yow on a six-year deal the daybefore the Maryland men beat Indiana for the NCAA title in Atlanta. She gothammered in the Twin Cities press for her lack of loyalty, but she doesn'tapologize for leaving. "Whether it was my personality or the personalitieswithin the administration, the fit wasn't there," she says.
Besides, Fresewas intrigued by the possibilities she saw at Maryland. The Terps had been totwo Final Fours in the 1980s under Weller, but the women hadn't won even aconference championship since '89 and had averaged just 13 wins in Weller'slast four seasons. None of that fazed Frese. She boldly pursued theblue-chippers that Tennessee, Connecticut and Duke were accustomed to getting,ignoring what she didn't have--recent success or consistent fan support--andpitching what she did: a youthful staff, a diverse student body, strongacademics, a powerful conference and the new, 17,900-seat Comcast Center. Mosteffectively, she appealed to recruits' pioneer spirit, thereby turning thesuccesses of Connecticut and Tennessee, with their 11 titles between them, intonegatives. Why go somewhere to win a sixth or seventh championship, she'd askplayers, when you could come here and win the first?
Within months ofarriving in College Park, Frese had landed her first McDonald's All-American:Shay Doron, an Israeli citizen who played her final two years of high schoolball at powerhouse Christ the King in Queens, N.Y. "Maryland wasn't in mytop 500," says Doron. "Then I started getting like 50 letters a dayfrom them. My mailman begged me, 'Come on, go to Maryland!'" During asummer basketball tournament in Washington, D.C., following her junior year,Doron reluctantly made an unofficial visit to the Maryland campus, at hermother's insistence, and met the coaching staff. "I just clicked withthem," says Doron. "It helped that Coach B is young. She is easy torelate to."
Frese'sfirst-year team struggled to a 10--18 finish, but with Doron aboard in 2003--04Maryland improved to 18--13. That was the year Frese brought in the first offour consecutive top five recruiting classes, including Harper and Langhorne,two highly prized Philadelphia-area players who both had been recruited byConnecticut.
Frese'srecruiting victories have ruffled feathers in the women's basketballestablishment, no doubt in part because, as Fennelly says, "she's extremelyconfident and she doesn't care what anybody else thinks." There are evenwhispers about recruiting improprieties, though no formal allegations have everbeen made. Last February, NCAA representatives interviewed players aboutFrese's recruiting practices, but Maryland officials say the interviews werepart of a routine process. (The NCAA doesn't comment on whether it isinvestigating a program.)
Frese says thereason for her success is simple. "We work extremely hard," she says."My first year at Maryland, I spent more time on the road than I did atpractice. I felt I needed to show Crystal Langhorne, Laura Harper, [juniorguard] Ashleigh Newman and [junior forward] Jade Perry how much we wanted themhere. I make phone calls, and send e-mails and instant messages [to recruits].Some coaches don't want to do that. If I'm still doing this job in 25 years, Imight have the same attitude."
Coleman and herteammates also cite the coach's unflagging confidence in their talent--"Ithink it's important they feel invincible every time they step on thecourt," Frese says--and her willingness to incorporate their suggestionsinto the game plan as reasons they love playing for her. "We have avoice," says Langhorne. "We're treated like adults."
Yet Frese alsoappeals to her players' inner children: Before they took on undefeated andtop-ranked North Carolina last Feb. 9, she pulled out a bag of Starburstcandies and passed them out to her players, noting that "each of you aredifferent flavors, but you are all stars." After the Terps beat the TarHeels 98--95 in overtime, she brought the theme full circle, saying,"You've just burst onto the national scene!"
There'll be nobursting onto the scene this year, and no playing the no-respect card that hasserved Frese so well. Instead there's a whole new set of challenges ahead."We're going to get everyone's best game of the season," says Frese."Can we handle the increased media exposure? Are we hungry enough?"
Not the usualkinds of questions she had to face as a rebuilder. But with the consensus No. 1preseason ranking, the Terrapins have now become the hares.
Who'll be this season's Cinderella? Household name?Biggest flop? SI's hoops experts weigh in at SI.com/collegebasketball.