By Katie Carlson
New York, NY — Hope for a championship title was on the line in Sunday’s single elimination playoff game featuring the New York Liberty and the Washington Mystics. The Liberty came into the game with an edge, having won two of the three matchups against the Mystics during the regular season plus on a 10-game winning streak. But, the Mystics took the momentum from their win against Dallas in the first round and beat New York, 82-68.
“It didn’t end like we wanted it to but overall, we had a tremendous season,” expressed New York’s Shavonte Zellous after the game. “Especially going on that 10-game winning streak towards the end and getting hot at the right time. Unfortunately, it had to end today against a very good [Washington] team that just came out determined to get a win, and that’s what they did.”
Washington did come out hungry and ready by being the first ones on the board and leading for the first four minutes of the game. However, that energy and success didn’t last through the rest of the first quarter. The New York Liberty realized they had to step it up and took complete control boasting a big 21-10 lead at the end of the opening frame and they didn’t stop there.
The Liberty kept pushing and led the Mystics by double digits for six minutes of the second quarter – but then Washington’s Kristi Toliver started to will her team to take over.
Toliver was quiet in the first period, but in the second she made sure to be heard with coast to coast and-1’s and warming up from deep. The shooting slump she started the game in was completely forgotten and her teammates were right behind her leadership
“Offensively she just took over,” Elena Delle Donne stated referring to Toliver’s performance, “We just rode her wave today.”
Delle Donne’s words couldn’t be any truer as the cohesion offensively improved drastically in the second as compared to the first 10 minutes of the game. Washington more than doubled its point production in the second frame and by intermission had dwindled its deficit down to a mere-six points behind, 41-35.
That first half success of New York was dulled severely in the second half – the Liberty’s offense went into a complete standstill. Toliver and the Mystics continued to fight making not only a comeback, yet stole the lead from the home team. The script had completely flipped as Washington now held a double-digit lead by 11, and New York’s offense could not get going again.
Defensively the Liberty had no answer for Toliver who remained locked in from deep as she was in the zone showing a grin after almost every triple she knocked in. Even though New York didn’t lie down for the Mystics, they were still behind nine points (60-51) as the deciding frame approached.
Already in an all-or-nothing game, the Liberty had a big hill to climb in order to stay in the playoffs, giving their all in the final frame. However, no momentum could be found as Toliver continued to scorch New York’s defense with a bombardment of triples. By the end of the game, she had not only a career-high 32 points, but set the WNBA Playoff record for most three’s made in a single game with nine.
When asked ‘what happened?’ Tina Charles gave a blunt answer, “Kristi Toliver happened.”
Heading into the matchup momentum on paper seemed to be with New York since it was riding a 10-game winning streak to end the regular season. The Liberty’s offensive weapons of Charles, Epiphany Prince, and Bria Hartley were all in locked in scoring in double-digits.
However, when a talented sharpshooter like Toliver is draining shots from everywhere on the court, it is hard to overcome. Not only was she shooting confidently, her teammates were playing fearlessly, too.
As a team, Washington dished out 17 assists, took care of the ball with only six turnovers (New York had 15) on the night and snagged eight steals from the Liberty. Behind Toliver in scoring was Delle Donne with another double-double of 18 points, 10 rebounds, Krystal Thomas with 11 points, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt pulled down nine rebounds.
Behind the charge of Toliver’s stellar performance, Washington took home the huge 82-68 victory and will face Minnesota in the semi-finals starting Tuesday in a Best-of-5 series.
“The rebounding and the turnovers were the big disparity…they played better than us today…that adds up to a loss,” stated New York’s head coach Bill Laimbeer on why the Liberty were shocked by the Mystics.