Story by Chris Graham
A funny thing happened on the way to Kristi Toliver’s homecoming victory – and I’m not talking about the two ridiculously petty fouls that she picked up in the first two minutes that planted her on the bench beside Maryland coach Brenda Frese for almost the entirety of the first half.
No, what I’m referring to here is how 5,046 people who came out in large part to see the former Harrisonburg High School star lead the Terps to victory over the homestanding James Madison University Dukes saw something that might have caught them by surprise.
“I think that people who came out tonight, whether they were JMU Nation, whether they were pro-Kristi Toliver, pro-Maryland, or whether they just wanted to see a good game, they were a casual fan, I think that they were treated to something special. It was a very good game – 30 seconds to go, and I don’t think anybody was sitting. And they came out, and they saw two very good teams,” said JMU coach Kenny Brooks, whose squad led most of the way before fading late in a 71-65 loss to the fourth-ranked Terrapins.
Toliver did hit two free throws to put Maryland (14-1) up 69-65 with 15.2 seconds to go – but for the most part she was not a factor, scoring just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting from the field and dishing out seven assists in 24 minutes.
Of course, to say that she was not a factor when the fourth-largest crowd in JMU basketball history caused a traffic jam in front of the Convocation Center that went out to the interstate would be to understate the significance of the night.
For starters, there was the loud ovation that Toliver, a junior who led the Terrapins to a national title as a precocious freshman point guard two years ago, received from the Convo Center in the pregame introductions. It was that loud cheer that Brooks said fired his team’s emotional burst at the outset that put the Dukes up nine 10 minutes in.
“They were tired of hearing about it, you know?” Brooks said. “I mean, The Daily News-Record prints a three-fourths page picture of Toliver. These kids work hard – these kids work hard, and they created something very special here. And they’re proud of that. And the fact that, you know, it’s just one time, and Kristi comes home – who’s a great player, and I love dearly – but she comes home, and we get all this, you know, attention. And it’s not the attention that they worked so hard for.
“And they’re sitting there, during player introductions, and when they said Kristi Toliver, and the place went crazy, I saw fire in their eyes. I saw fire in their eyes because they’re very proud kids, very proud kids – and they went out to protect their turf,” Brooks said.
Toliver, for her part, said she knew going in that the game was going to be a test for herself personally and for her teammates – and remember, this is coming from the ice-in-her-veins poker player who calmly nailed a game-tying three in the closing seconds of the 2006 national-championship game.
“Preparation-wise, I prepared for this game almost identical to how I prepared for the Final Four,” Toliver said after the game. “I knew it was going to be a hostile environment, and that JMU was going to come ready to play. I think each and every one of us had to prepare like it was going to be the national-championship game, because I think we knew they were going to come out and compete.”
Toliver seemed to want to shrug off mention of the embarrassingly-uninformed chant that emanated from the student section near the Maryland bench whenever she had the ball in her hands – “Traitor! Traitor!” When she finally did acknowledge it, it was with a laugh.
“Band guys, what do they know?” said Toliver, sitting, as it turns out, in a room used for postgame press conferences that also happens to feature plaques of JMU sports hall-of-famers including her father, George, a basketball standout at James Madison who later went on to become a long-time NBA referee.
“I had a lot of family and friends out there, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t yelling that,” Toliver said.
That’s true, but they were yelling a bit more than they expected to try to get Toliver the win that had seemed to be a given at the outset.
“I don’t know what people expected. I know what I expected. I know what the kids expected. As the leader of this team, being the leader of this team, I instill confidence in them. And people coming up to me, and they’re like, You’re playing with Monopoly money. Nobody expects you to win. You know, go out there and just give a good showing. And I laughed,” Brooks said, though the look on his face when he said it didn’t indicate that his laugh would have been a signal of amusement.
“If I had a dime for every time somebody came up to me and said, I’ve never been to one of your games, but I’m coming on Thursday to see Kristi, I’ll probably be rooting for Kristi, what am I supposed to say to that?” Brooks said.
How about, Go out there and win this game, and show them what you can do? That seemed to be the unifying message for the JMU basketball family – even down to Brooks’ own progeny.
“My middle child before the game saw Kristi shooting around, and they love Kristi, too. So she said, There’s Kristi, can I say hi to her? And I said, Nope. JMU tonight. All JMU,” Brooks said.
“I wouldn’t call it animosity,” Dukes center Jennifer Brown said afterward of the feelings of JMU players related to the Toliver homecoming. “It just gave us more motivation to play hard and try to defend her extra harder, because it was such a big hype behind her coming back home. So we just approached it as we wanted to take it as a challenge, and not as animosity. Because she’s a great player.”
A great player who has learned to live in the moment. During a break in the action surrounding a pair of free-throw attempts by JMU forward Tamera Young, Toliver and Brooks got caught up in a discussion about something that continued through both foul shots.
Toliver sidestepped the issue of what had been said when asked about the exchange after the game.
“I’m not at liberty to say – no, we were just goofing around,” Toliver said. “Just enjoy the moment, like Coach Frese said. I was trying to embrace everything. I think we were even down at that point, but I was still just having fun enjoying everything. It was nice just to have some small talk with him, but I was just staying focused.”
Brooks tried to avoid the issue himself.
“Private moment – no, it was actually very funny. She’s a very funny kid,” Brooks said. “She was talking with the referees – she was talking with the referees about Tamera getting fouled so much. And I asked her something about what was she talking about, and she came over to me, and she gave me a very in-depth conversation, and told me how they were calling, and what they were calling. And I just looked at her, and I said, Is that the George Toliver in you? And she just busted out laughing. I can’t tell you what she said after that, but it was – that’s as much as I can tell you.”
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.