Kristi Toliver poses for a photo in 2018 while playing for the Washington Mystics. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Few people understand what it’s like to be on a basketball team that competes with unselfish joy while dominating its opponents. Even fewer people can say they led one of those teams. Kristi Toliver is one of those people.

“That’s the only kind of basketball I ever want to be a part of, and to be able to watch Maryland do it now, it fills my heart a little bit,” she tells City Paper.

In 2006, Toliver was a freshman starting point guard on the Maryland women’s basketball team that would go on to win the NCAA title after Toliver hit a three-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation to send the championship game to overtime. The 34-year-old has since added two WNBA titles to her resume, in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks and in 2019 with the Washington Mystics. She is currently back with the Sparks and training in Arizona to prepare for the upcoming WNBA season this summer.

Toliver gets flashbacks when she watches the Terps this year. They’re not much different from the Maryland championship team she played on.

“Just the way they score the ball, the way that they share it, the way that they play together, and you can obviously see the joy that they have on the floor together,” she says. “That certainly reminds me of our team in ’06 and then the run that we had and the reason why we had it. We could score from all positions just like they can. I think they have six players in double-digit scoring. They can fill it up. So as a fan, as an alum, it’s really fun to watch and just to see the spirit they have on the floor and the joy that they’re playing with.”

The Terps are leading the nation in scoring offense with 91.8 points per game; the only other team—women or men—to average over 90 points this season is the undefeated Gonzaga men’s team. Maryland coach Brenda Frese often mentions in her media availabilities that the Terps also have the best assist to turnover ration (1.70) in the country. Nearly every player on the roster can score in double digits at any given game, like Maryland did in its punishing 100-64 win over Alabama in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Terps will play Texas on Sunday at 9 p.m. in their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2017.

“I love that we’re dominating the game, but we’re doing it the right way,” Frese said after the Alabama win. “We’re doing it by playing the right way, by playing a beautiful brand of basketball, to be quite honest.”

With an influx of new faces on the team this year, Frese and the players weren’t sure what to expect coming into the season. But it didn’t take long for the pieces to fall into place.

“I think it was our first practice,” sophomore guard-forward Faith Masonius told reporters Wednesday. “We knew we were going to be a special team.”

The Terps were tested early when freshman Angel Reese, the No. 2-ranked recruit in the country by ESPN, broke a bone in her right foot in December, forcing her to miss nearly three months of play. It was during that time, Frese said, that the Terps embraced their mantra: All gas, no brakes.

Players have been wearing the slogan on their shirts during warmups at the NCAA Tournament.

“When Angel Reese was hurt, she actually kind of brought it to the team and kind of started the messaging of it with the energy that she had through the whole time with her injury,” Frese said. “So they’ve really bought in, understanding that and today was also about emptying the tank, kind of going along with that theme. We wanted to play hard and compete for 40 hard minutes, but it’s definitely been a great mindset for our kids. I mean, going in conference play, just having those dominating wins and not playing the team but playing to our standard.”

Toliver remembers the 2006 team also had a mantra that the players carried through to the very end of the season: Overtime is our time. Frese is known to use slogans as motivation, but credits Ashleigh Newman for the motto after the team’s second overtime win that season.

“It’s just because of the six overtime games we accumulated throughout the course of the season, and it obviously ended in an overtime victory. It was just kind of meant to be,” Toliver says of the mantra. “But that’s kind of what gave us the confidence in those types of situations when games were close, we knew we had enough … That’s what Coach B does. I mean, she’s just a motivator. She’s great with her words … And I love the one that they came up with this year. It’s awesome.”

Toliver keeps a close eye on the team, but doesn’t want to make comparisons between the current roster and the 2006 champions. “I try to stay away from that,” she says. Instead, Toliver simply admires how much fun the entire team is to watch.

“I think that they can play inside out. They can play positionless basketball,” she says. “They have a great point guard in Ashley [Owusu], who’s the head of the snake and kind of taking charge and running the show. You have Angel who’s doing her thing inside and out. I think Chloe Bibby is an X-factor for them. She’s able to score inside and out and she just kind of is that player that kind of does it all for you, hustles, gets those 50-50s, has great size, and then Katie [Benzan], she can you know shoot it from anywhere. She’s fun to watch, just the way she can fill it up from three and it’s just balance. They’re just a balanced team who can obviously put the ball in the basket and then they find a way on defense, kind of like we did.”

As a No. 2 seed, Frese understands that the team may not have received the national attention that usually comes with such a high-powered offense. But that doesn’t concern her.

“I think we make a statement every time we get to play,” Frese said. “The further you advance, the more the teams and fans, and nationally they get to see this team, and maybe they haven’t had that opportunity. So we’ve always just let our actions speak for itself.”

That often means scoring nearly 100 points against the best college competition in the world on the game’s biggest stage. But, as Frese points out, the biggest difference between this year’s team and the 2006 champions is that the Terps have yet to win it all this year: “We’re telling our story right now.” The next chapter will be on Sunday.

“I’m excited to be a spectator,” Toliver says.