NEW YORK -- After shooting just 19 percent from the field in the opening quarter Sunday, the Mystics appeared to be having one of those nights in their second-round playoff game against New York.
Outside of Elena Delle Donne's six-point first quarter, the rest of Washington's roster shot 1-for-13. The Mystics watched as Tina Charles and the Liberty opened an 11-point lead by the end of the opening frame, seemingly well on their way to making franchise history with their 11th straight win.
Enter Kristi Toliver.
After missing her first three shots from the field, Toliver went on to score 29 points in the ensuing 20 minutes to lead a Washington surge that flipped a 14-point deficit into an eventual upset of the third-seeded Liberty 82-68. Toliver finished the game with a career-high and franchise-record 32 points and a WNBA playoff-record nine 3-pointers.
"I've never witnessed something like that," said Delle Donne, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. "To be on the court and on the right side of it was unreal. She was unconscious."
"I didn't come here to be a passive, tentative player. I came here to dominate, to lead. What better place to do that than in Madison Square Garden."Kristi Toliver, who as a free agent this offseason left Los Angeles for Washington
The historic performance -- Toliver broke Chamique Holdsclaw's 15-year-old franchise record for points in a playoff game (26) -- couldn't have come at a better time. Toliver was coming off one of her worst performances of the year, shooting 1-of-9 from 3-point range and committing five turnovers last Wednesday against the Wings in the first round.
"I didn't come here to be a passive, tentative player," she said. "I came here to dominate, to lead. What better place to do that than in Madison Square Garden."
After a cold start to Sunday's game, Toliver's success from beyond the arc built slowly. Made baskets were followed by a handful of misses as she sought to find a rhythm, as did the rest of her teammates. In the third quarter, however, Toliver commanded the game, making five 3-pointers in the period to silence an MSG crowd that might have pre-emptively made plans for the next round of the playoffs after the first 15 minutes of the game.
First came a shot over 6-foot-3 forward Kiah Stokes on the left wing, then a ridiculous shot over Shavonte Zellous on the right wing a few feet behind the arc. Toliver seemed to evoke the ghost of Reggie Miller in the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference playoffs with the way she almost single-handedly carried her team back into contention.
The shots didn't come easy, but that's how Toliver likes it.
"I usually shoot better when they're contested; I like it," she said. "I think a couple in the third, fourth quarter, when I was just letting it fly, I was just letting it go."
New York's Stokes added: "She can shoot over anybody because she has a quick release, so if you're not in her space, it's tough."
Delle Donne said the Mystics rode Toliver's wave to find some momentum of their own. Washington shot 49 percent in the second half.
While Toliver's dominance on the offensive end was exceptional, so too was Washington's ability to win the battle on the boards. New York was the second-best rebounding team in the league, hadn't been beaten on the glass during its 10-game streak, and had previously outrebounded Washington by 10-plus boards in each of their three regular-season meetings this year.
But in continuing their dominance on the glass from their playoff-opening victory over Dallas -- in which they set a franchise playoff record with 52 rebounds -- the Mystics outrebounded the Liberty for the first time this season, 37-33, while holding New York to just three offensive rebounds.
"Everybody had it in mind that New York is one of the best rebounding teams in the league," said Washington's Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who pulled down nine rebounds. "If we just kept them off the offensive boards hard, we'll be in good shape."
Washington's ability to make shots slowed the pace of the game and ultimately slowed down the New York offense. Charles, who started the game 5-of-6 from the field, finished 3-of-11. Increased ball pressure on Liberty set plays allowed the Mystics to force 13 turnovers in the final three quarters.
Once the Mystics took the lead with 3 minutes left in the third, fittingly on a 3-pointer by Toliver, there was little doubt they would win the game, ultimately pushing their lead to 20 points.
"They had their hands on balls, they were quicker to any loose balls," said Stokes, who added that New York coach Bill Laimbeer told his players after the game that they were outhustled and outplayed Sunday. "It falls more on us. They made tough shots when they had to."
Washington advances to face top-seeded Minnesota in a best-of-five series to compete for a spot in the WNBA Finals. For a team that has overcome its share of adversity over the course of the season, Toliver believes that after a team performance like Sunday night, the Mystics are capable of tackling the challenge ahead.
"We believe, we're continuing to believe," Toliver said. "And when you get wins like this against a team like this, it makes you want to do everything you possibly can to keep this thing going."