NEW YORK — There have been times when it looked as if the Washington Mystics were teetering, standing at a pivot point that could define the rest of their season. At home in July, two games after they lost Tayler Hill to a knee injury that would cost her the remainder of the season and Elena Delle Donne to a sprained ankle for a few games. Against Phoenix and Diana Taurasi in August, with a playoff seed on the line. Both times, Kristi Toliver embraced the pressure.
She dug in again Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
The former Maryland Terrapin harnessed all of the New York crowd’s noise and energy in Sunday’s second-round, single-elimination playoff game and sent it hurtling back to push the Mystics past the Liberty, 82-68, to lift Washington into the semifinal round of the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2002.
They face the Minnesota Lynx in a best-of-five series starting Tuesday in Minneapolis.
Toliver was electric in front of the announced crowd of 9,538 that screamed along with a guest DJ and danced to disco lights during timeouts. She scored a season-high 32 points, including a career-high nine three pointers, to help the Mystics erase an 11-point hole after the first quarter.
“I said I’ve never witnessed something like that, but to be on court and be on the right side of it was unreal,” Delle Donne said. “We just rode her wave today — she was unconscious, but that’s her. I mean, I grew up watching her. That was her in the national championship game [for Maryland], so when she’s going off like that, we just do all the other little things and let her go.”
Washington had opened poorly trying to keep up with the breakneck pace that the Liberty’s Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince set from tip-off. New York entered Sunday on a 10-game winning streak to end the regular season that shot them up to third place in the Eastern Conference and granted them a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
It looked as if their streak would continue — the Mystics made just 4 of 21 field goal attempts in the first 10 minutes before Toliver, who won a WNBA title with Los Angeles last year, got hot in the second quarter.
She hit three three-pointers before halftime as the Mystics’ defense picked up and their rebounding improved. Then with 6:39 left in the third, the Mystics showed their potential in a single play: Delle Donne lunged to reach an offensive rebound after a miss from Emma Meesseman, landed in a wide stance, pivoted twice and thrashed around two defenders to get the ball to Toliver. Toliver sank a three to put the Mystics ahead 45-44 and give them the lead for good.
“I didn’t come here to be a passive, tentative player,” Toliver said. “I came here to dominate. To lead. And what better place to do it than Madison Square Garden? Just because you miss four shots — I’m 30 years old. Maybe if I was 23, my thought process would have been different, but I’ve kind of grown up since then.”
The Mystics were able to support Toliver when it counted — they collected 14 offensive rebounds and on defense held Charles, New York’s leading scorer, to just 10 points after the first quarter.
Delle Donne had 18 points on 8-for-21 shooting, including two three-pointers of her own and a team-high 10 rebounds. Krystal Thomas added 11 points, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt had nine rebounds.
Thomas and Ruffin-Pratt, who ended the first quarter with three rebounds combined, were a large part in shoring up Washington’s defense. The Mystics outrebounded the Liberty 37-33.
“Offensively, [Toliver] just took over, but we have such gritty players,” Delle Donne said. “We have two dogs in Krystal Thomas and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and we even said — ‘we follow your lead, and your grit.’ They absolutely changed the whole tone of the game that way.”
Charles had 18 points to lead New York, former Washington guard Bria Hartley had 15 points, and Prince added 12.
In their news conference afterward, the usually measured Delle Donne and Toliver were giddy with excitement and enjoying their moment in front of a room packed with media.
When asked how she and Delle Donne created their chemistry, Toliver smiled and said, “It’s been tough ’cause this schmuck broke her hand, killed the momentum a little bit.” When asked whether she knew the exact play that caused the momentum switch — Toliver slammed the table and said, “Hell, I don’t know, we were just out here playing!”
“I was excited today. . . . I was a little nervous today,” she said. “This was the first time I felt nervous coming into a basketball game, and for me, that just shows how frickin’ excited I am and, like, how bad I want to win. So I think this team is completely capable of anything. We believe, we’re continuing to believe, and when we can get wins like this, in a building like this, against a team like that, it makes you believe. It makes you want to do everything you possibly can to keep this thing going.”