When Kristi Toliver was debating leaving the Los Angeles Sparks after the 2016 season to sign with the Washington Mystics, one factor stood out to her above all others. Getting to play with former league MVP Elena Delle Donne was enticing. But more than that, Toliver wanted the chance to be a leader.
The 31-year-old guard has made strides toward that goal this season, both on and off the court. She worked as an assistant coach last month with the Wizards’ summer league team and notched her second career WNBA all-star selection to give the Mystics two representatives at the All-Star Game — Toliver and Delle Donne — for the first time since 2015.
Toliver took the lead again Sunday afternoon at Capital One Arena. Before she helped guide the Mystics to a 93-80 win over the Dallas Wings, the former Maryland Terrapin stood in front of a crowd of 6,362 and read a statement condemning the white supremacist rally that took place Sunday evening across the street from the White House.
“While we are set to play a game today, it would be mindless and irresponsible to not mention what’s happening down the street in our great city,” Toliver read to the crowd. “Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, a rally rooted in racism and hate. Our message against these beliefs and actions remains as strong today as it did a year ago.
“We feel shock at the state of this country and believe that hate should never be granted this platform. We feel our purpose is to love and respect people of all backgrounds. We believe bigotry is never justified. We believe in living in true equality. And we believe in [having] the courage to speak out. As our leadership fails to provide this inclusive environment, it is all the more important that we together use our power for good. Continue to acknowledge these issues in your daily lives — speak, act and live with compassion.”
It was the second such statement Toliver has composed in as many years. The Mystics released a team statement after the rally in Charlottesville a year ago at Toliver’s urging as well.
She told her teammates Saturday that she was planning to make another address, asked if they had anything to add and, with their blessing, set about writing her piece.
“I feel like you talk about platform — it’s been one year since that happened,” Toliver said in the locker room after the game. “I’m very much into these kinds of things and what’s going on in the world, especially when it’s in our backyard. So I wrote it last night, was a little nervous to speak on it today right before the game, but I’m glad I did.”
Toliver delivered her message just before the arena lights dimmed for the national anthem and was roundly applauded as she walked to her spot on the court. After she said her piece, the focus turned back to basketball.
Toliver was part of a three-pronged attack that helped propel the Mystics (20-11) to a high-stakes win over the Wings (14-17), who are fighting for the last of eight spots in the WNBA playoffs.
Sunday’s victory marked just the second time in franchise history the Mystics have won 20 or more games in a season; the last time they did so was in 2010. But more than matching that record, third-place Washington is gunning for a double-bye into the playoffs and sitting a game-and-a-half behind the second-place Atlanta Dream.
“It’s the coveted spot,” forward Monique Currie said. “That’s the goal right now. That’s all we’re focused on, trying to get that No. 2 spot.”
That focus showed for much of Sunday’s game. The team’s two leading scorers were explosive — Delle Donne had 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting and three three-pointers, and Toliver scored 17 points on 7-for-14 shooting including three three-pointers. But they had help, too, with Ariel Atkins turning in a career-high performance to lead all scorers with 26 points.
Atkins shot a perfect 5 for 5 from the field before leaving the court after a hard fall midway through the fourth quarter. The rookie wing landed with a thwack on her right side after jumping up toward the basket and walked to the locker room. She did not return.
Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault wasn’t sure of her status but said Atkins “basically landed on her hip.”
Losing Atkins, who is Washington’s third-leading scorer averaging 11.4 points per game, would be a blow to the Mystics with the postseason approaching, but the team does have a reservoir of scorers capable of stepping up should she miss time.
Center LaToya Sanders averages 10.4 points per game. Point guard Natasha Cloud averages nine points and has scored in double figures four of the past five times out.
Regardless of whether Atkins can play, Thibault wants Washington to raise its level of play before the playoffs. The Mystics led by 24 at one point Sunday and let the Wings get within single digits in the fourth quarter.
“We’re not there yet completely,” Thibault said.