Toliver eventually broke down for a few moments when discussing an injury to teammate Elena Delle Donne with just over three minutes to play that forced the former WNBA MVP from the game when it was tied at 70. The harrowing sequence unfolded when Delle Donne drove the basket and planted her left leg, only to have her knee buckle.
Delle Donne crumpled in a heap just beyond the baseline, motionless until her teammates — led by Toliver — came to her side during a stoppage in play. Krystal Thomas and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough helped carry Delle Donne back to the locker room, where she had her knee examined by the athletic training staff.
The severity of the injury is uncertain. Delle Donne will have her knee examined further when the team arrives back in the District on Wednesday, but the first-team all-WNBA selection wasn’t counting herself out for the rest of the series, which is tied at one game apiece and resumes Friday night at Smith Center.
“I mean, I’m walking,” Delle Donne said in a somber locker room at McCamish Pavilion. “The swelling isn’t terrible, so I’ll go home and see our doctors and see what they say, but I’m hopeful.”
Coach Mike Thibault indicated he was cautiously optimistic as well following a dispiriting loss that came down to the wire. With the scored tied at 74, reserve guard Alex Bentley’s field goal put the Dream ahead for good with 35 seconds remaining.
Toliver had a chance to tie standing at the free throw line with 22 seconds to play but missed the first of two shots, and guard Tiffany Hayes put the Dream in front 77-75 by making 1 of 2 from the line.
In position to tie or take the lead on a three-pointer, the Mystics instead committed a turnover with 15 seconds to go when Bentley deflected and stole rookie guard Ariel Atkins’s pass intended for Toliver. Bentley made 1 of 2 foul shots, and the buzzer sounded as Toliver’s desperation three-pointer missed.
Delle Donne “is always going to be missed when she’s not on the court,” Toliver said. “Her presence speaks volumes, so it’s all about the next person stepping up. Whether she can play or not on Friday, we have to show up and give our best effort, and that’s what we’ll give.”
Delle Donne left the game with 27 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocks, continuing a torrid postseason during which she has averaged 26 points. Her rebound and assists totals were playoff career highs, and she is 19 of 19 from the foul line through three postseason games.
“She’s in high spirits,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said of Delle Donne, who this year set the franchise record for scoring average (20.7). “This is serious. She’s one of our leaders, just encouraging us. We’ll figure it out going into Friday.”
Both sides collected themselves offensively after a sluggish first half. Delle Donne was the catalyst in that regard for the Mystics, making all three of her three-point attempts in the third quarter in helping to forge a 56-46 lead with 3;47 remaining.
A closing push from Atlanta knotted the score at 58 after Bentley was fouled driving to the basket for a layup with one-tenth of a second to play. She made 1 of 2 foul shots to cap a 12-2 surge in which four players scored, including a three-pointer from guard Renee Montgomery.
The only points for Washington in the last 3:47 of the third quarter came when center LaToya Sanders gathered a rebound on a miss and put it back off the glass.
The Dream has been playing without the face of the franchise since guard-forward Angel McCoughtry tore ligaments in her knee early this month. The two-time WNBA scoring champion has unleashed some of her more prolific performances against the Mystics.
With McCoughtry in the lineup, Atlanta won its previous two postseason series with Washington, sweeping in two games in 2010 and claiming the best-of-three matchup in 2013.
McCoughtry is averaging 20.4 points in the playoffs against the Mystics, but in her absence, Atlanta has turned to a guard-heavy rotation with Hayes leading the charge.
The 2018 all-star nearly brought the Dream back from a nine-point deficit with less than two minutes to play in Sunday’s Game 1 before Washington rookie Atkins deflected an inbounds pass with a half-second left to preserve an 87-84 victory.
The opening stages of Game 2 took on a decidedly more defensive tenor than the opener. The teams, for instance, combined for 12 blocks in the first half.
The Mystics also missed all five of their three-pointers during the first quarter in part because Dream Coach Nicki Collen deployed a wave of fresh Atlanta defenders off the bench, a strategy the WNBA coach of the year elected not to deploy in Game 1.
“First of all, we like to be greedy and go home with two,” Thibault said. “We’ve got a chance to get a little bit of rest and regroup a little bit. It’s an emotional time. We don’t know what the status of Elena is going to be. Obviously she’s a huge factor in what we do, so it’s hard to comment what to expect until we see where we are when we get to Thursday’s practice, how many bodies are standing.”