NEW YORK — The first 10 minutes of the single-elimination playoff game at Madison Square Garden all belonged to the home-standing New York Liberty. The rest of the game, however, almost all belonged to Kristi Toliver, with her record-setting half an hour of gameplay leading Washington to the WNBA semifinals.
The nine-year veteran scored 32 points while setting a new WNBA record with nine three-pointers made as the Washington Mystics turned around an early 14-point deficit to defeat the New York Liberty 82-68, winning its second winner-take-all playoff game this week to advance to a semifinals series with top-seeded Minnesota.
It was hard to see the game that eventually unfolded for Toliver and the Mystics in the first quarter, with the guard missing her first three shots and the Liberty ending the quarter with a 10-point lead at 20-10. As a team, Washington just made four of their 21 shot attempts in the first, with Toliver missing all three of her field goal tries. After missing her first shot of the second quarter, Toliver sank her first shot of the game, a three-pointer, at the moment when the Mystics were staring at their largest deficit at 29-15. That shot make was the beginning of an extended 40-15 run for Washington.
“Just because you miss four shots, I didn’t come here to be a passive, tentative player,” said Toliver, who bested Chamique Holdsclaw’s previous franchise playoff single-game record of 26 points. “I came here to dominate, to lead. What better place to do it than Madison Square Garden?”
The World’s Most Famous Arena has seen many long-range shooting extravaganzas in its illustrious history, but Toliver’s now belongs in a stratosphere that basketball greats like Michael Jordan and Carol Blazejowski have reached while playing in the Big Apple. Toliver hit two more threes in the second quarter to help Washington cut New York’s lead to six at 41-35 at halftime, but it was the third quarter that the first-year Mystic both dismayed and captivated the Madison Square Garden crowd with her long-range efforts.
Washington started the second half on a 20-3 run, with Toliver hitting all four of her threes she attempted during that stretch as the Mystics extended their lead to double digits (55-44). Most of the threes she hit in the quarter were right in front of the New York Liberty bench as well as from NBA three-point range. All told, Toliver made all five of her threes in the quarter on her way to 17 third-quarter points, and, by the start of the fourth quarter, the Mystics had a nine-point lead.
“That was my biggest fear going into this game: Tolliver making ungodly shots that she does every now and then,” said New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer, who has seen his team lose its first (and only) playoff game in back-to-back seasons. “We were in her space. She played great and every opening she had she released it quickly before we could put a hand on the ball and they went in.”
While Toliver was shouldering the scoring load in the game, another first-year Mystics player, former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, chipped in with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and her jumper midway through the fourth pushed the lead into the insurmountable category at 74-56. Even with her double-double, Delle Donne still caught herself admiring her teammate’s shooting touch while on the court.
“I’ve never witnessed something like that, but to be on court and be on the right side of it was unreal,” said Delle Donne. “We just rode her wave tonight…offensively she just took over.”
Once Toliver and Delle Donne got going, the game plan for the Mystics became a little easier to execute.
“We didn’t make a lot of in game adjustments,” said Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. “We made a few play call adjustments in the second half, but we were getting as many good looks as we’ve had here in all of our games. Once we started making shots, [New York] had to walk up the ball more. I think to win at this level and win big games you have to have several players that don’t mind pressure shots and you can’t be shy about the situation and that speaks to their level of play. It’s certainly why I spent the most of my winter trying to figure out how to get them.”
The Liberty, yet to win a WNBA championship in their 21 years of existence, have now lost in the single-elimination second round of the WNBA playoffs in consecutive seasons, failing to win a game in this year’s WNBA Playoffs after ending the season on a WNBA season-high 10-game winning streak.
“That’s the nature of this format,” said Laimbeer. “You can have one bad game and you’re out. We have to take advantage of it and today we just did not do that. When a player like that goes off, that’s what this format is about.”
It is the same playoff format that also has allowed Washington, who won a win-or-go-home first-round game against the Dallas Wings on Wednesday, to not feel as much pressure going into today’s one-game playoff.
“When your back is against the wall, you have to leave everything out on the floor and that’s what we did against Dallas and we were able to build from the momentum we had into today,” said Toliver. “You don’t really want to be put in that situation, but the fact that we were just shows our determination to continue.”
The Mystics advance to the WNBA semifinals versus the Minnesota Lynx for a five-game series that begins on Tuesday night.
*Additional reporting done by Adesina O. Koiki, ALOST editor-in-chief.