- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Kristi Toliver's buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Los Angeles Sparks over the Tulsa Shock on Tuesday night was a dramatic, exciting and memorable moment.
Add it to a growing list for the fourth-year point guard.
Toliver has become a load-carrier for the Sparks, who improved to 4-1 with the win to stay on the heels of unbeaten Minnesota in the Western Conference.
And that is something of a new role for the former Maryland star, who had not quite found her WNBA footing before head coach Carol Ross arrived in Los Angeles this season and offered Toliver a chance at a fresh start.
She has taken a lead role for the 2012 Sparks, who are looking to go from being a lottery team back to the WNBA playoffs and are off to a strong start.
Through the first five games of the season, Toliver is averaging a career-best 20.0 points a game, averaging 34.0 minutes and shooting 51.6 percent from the floor.
She currently ranks sixth in the WNBA in scoring and second in free throws made (21 of 24).
Ross never doubted Toliver's ability as an offensive player.
"My surprise has been how receptive she's been to being a really solid defensive player," Ross said. "She wants to be a complete player, as threatening on the defensive end as she is on the offensive end."
To this point in her WNBA career, Toliver's role has primarily been as a reserve coming off the bench. She started 17 games for the Sparks last summer, but her season was mostly noteworthy for an altercation with Phoenix's Ketia Swanier, who missed two games with an eye injury after taking an elbow from Toliver.
Her first two seasons in the league, she made a total of four starts, and was traded from Chicago after her rookie season after expressing frustration in the media about her lack of playing time.
Toliver said she sat down with Ross for an hour when the coach arrived in Los Angeles.
"When a new coach comes in, you get a chance to make a new name for yourself, a new identity," Toliver said. "I want her to think I'm a great defender, a great teammate, a great offensive player. Anything that's happened in the past, your past reputation, you get to keep in the past."
Tuesday was not typical of most of the nights that Toliver has had this season.
Before she buried the game winner, she was struggling. She had committed 14 turnovers -- a WNBA single-game record. She had scored 13 points -- not bad, but well under her season average so far.
She said after the game that she felt like she was letting down her teammates with her mistakes. Ross told her at halftime that she used up all her mistakes.
But there wasn't any question that Toliver was going back out on the floor to try again.
Toliver is the Sparks' only true point guard at this point. Sharnee Zoll, who was going to compete with Toliver for playing time in camp, is out for the season with a knee injury. Toliver is picking up the lion's share of minutes, with veteran Alana Beard moving over from the No. 2 spot to spell her.
"We are short-handed," Ross said. "She might be playing more than she actually wants to, but it's necessary."
Toliver came back to the States after a strong season overseas in Russia, as she took advantage of the opportunity to play with former Maryland teammate Crystal Langhorne in Moscow. The pair finished as the Russian Premier League's first- and third-leading scorers, respectively.
"I was comfortable just playing with her and thinking how we did in college," said Toliver, who teamed with Langhorne to lead the Terps to the 2006 national championship. "It definitely played a part in how I played there."
But Toliver never had any doubt about her offensive abilities.
"Even as a rookie [in Chicago], when I got to play, my scoring has always been there," Toliver said. "Defensively, I know I've had the reputation that 'She's the weak link,' and I'm very prideful. I don't want to be the weak link."
Not on a team coached by Ross, who came to Los Angeles after serving as the Atlanta Dream's defensive guru. Atlanta reached the WNBA Finals each of the past two seasons.
In addition to wanting to be a better defender, Toliver wants to be a better "pro."
"It's different than being in college," said Toliver, who hopes to finish her career in Los Angeles. "The business is different, the personalities are different. It's a matter of learning how to handle things and people. It took me awhile to understand that."
Ross said Toliver is on her way to becoming more than a great scorer, but a great player. This season might be that breakthrough.
"Anytime there's a new coach, that gives every player a chance to reinvent themselves if they choose," Ross said. "She wants to be more and better. My arrival might have been an opportunity for her, but she should get all the credit because she's taking everything and running with it."
14dBonnie D. Ford