NEW YORK – This is exactly what Kristi Toliver envisioned when she decided to come home.
Toliver, in her first year with the Mystics after signing as a free agent from Los Angeles, put her hometown team on her back in Sunday’s second-round playoff game. The DMV native and former Maryland Terrapin had a career night, scoring 32 points and sinking a WNBA-record nine three-pointers in Washington’s 82-68 win over New York.
After a slow start, Toliver caught fire in the second quarter as the Mystics began to chip away at their double-digit deficit. She proceeded to go bonkers in the third frame, including a personal 9-0 run on three consecutive triples that put Washington in front for good. Toliver had 17 of her playoff career-high 32 points in the third quarter to help the Mystics flip the switch.
Her nine three-pointers were the most by any player, regular season or playoffs, in WNBA history.
“I’ve never witnessed something like that,” said Elena Delle Donne, who’s also in her first year with the Mystics. “Being on the court – and being on the right side of it – was unreal. We just rode her wave today. She was unconscious, but that’s her. I grew up watching her. That was her in the national championship game. So when she’s going off like that, we just do the little things and let her go.”
Delle Donne is referring to Toliver’s game-tying triple in the 2006 NCAA title game, which Maryland went on to win in overtime. Throughout her basketball career, the nine-year WNBA veteran has proven to never be afraid of the big shot, or the big game.
A champion at the college and pro levels after last year’s title with the Sparks, Toliver’s experience came in handy at just the right moment on Sunday.
“It’s playoff time. You lose, you go home,” Toliver said after the game. “We want to make a deep run in these playoffs. I didn’t come here to be a passive, tentative player. I came here to dominate, to lead. And what better place to do it than Madison Square Garden?”
Before Toliver started connecting from deep, the Mystics couldn’t buy a bucket on Sunday. They missed their first 10 three-pointers and shot 19 percent from the field in the first quarter.
By halftime, the deficit was just 41-35, with Toliver leading all scorers at 12 points. Her personal 9-0 run in the third quarter was part of 17 unanswered points by the Mystics, who took a 59-51 lead into the final frame.
Toliver got a brief rest to start the fourth quarter, then nailed her record-setting ninth trey less than a minute after re-entering. It capped off a Mystics 10-2 run that put the game out of reach.
“That was my biggest fear going into this game, Toliver making the ungodly shots that she does every now and then,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “She played great. She made all the big shots. Any opening that she had, she released it before we could get a hand on the ball, and they went in.”
Heading into Sunday’s game, Toliver had actually been struggling with her jumper. The former All-Star shot just 34 percent from three-point range in the regular season – the lowest percentage of her career – and made just one of nine attempts from deep in the first round against Dallas.
As the team’s veteran leader, Toliver knew she couldn’t let any of that deter her on Sunday.
When she initially signed with the Mystics, Toliver said, “I want to be the leader of this team. I just have built up so much experience in the eight years I’ve played, now going into my ninth. I’ve played with so many great players and so many great teachers that I want to pay it forward. I just want to be a teacher of the game, because I’ve had so many great teachers. Ultimately that’s what’s most important at the end of the day.”
After leading the Mystics in record-setting fashion, Toliver now has her hometown squad in almost unchartered territory. This will be their second-ever trip to the semifinal round of the playoffs.
They will need Toliver more than ever against the top-seeded Lynx, who host Game 1 in the best-of-five series Tuesday night (8 PM ET, ESPN2). Washington is seeking its first trip to the WNBA Finals.
With their seasoned point guard running the show, the Mystics have faith they can pull it off.
“I think this team is completely capable of anything,” Toliver said. “We believe, and we’ll continue to believe. When you get wins like this, in a building like this and against a team like that, it makes you believe. It makes you want to do everything you possibly can to keep this thing going.”