It was same time, this year. For the second consecutive season the New York Liberty fell at the one-stop second-round playoff station and this time it was Kristi Toliver who did the dirty deed scoring a team-leading 32 points to lead the Washington Mystics over the New York Liberty 82-68 at Madison Square Garden before 9,538 befuddled fans who saw a ten-game winning streak come to a crashing halt with playoff elimination the reward.
“It’s playoff time. You lose or go home,” said the Mystics guard Toliver, “I didn’t come here to be a passive, tentative player. I came to dominate, to lead. What better place to do that than in Madison Square Garden?”
It didn’t start off that way. The Liberty came out blasting as Washington missed shots and New York had the run of play taking a 25-10 lead which turned out to be a mirage. New York was hitting on all cylinders. But Washington is led by two experienced elite performers in Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver who refused to believe that the Liberty could sustain the effort.
“As a rule she (Elena Della Donne) can miss shots early and that doesn’t change her mindset,” said Washington Mystic Head coach Mike Thibault, “To play at this level and win big games you have to have several players and we have two here, Donne and Toliver, who don’t mind pressure shots. You can’t be shy about the situation.”
They were correct in that assumption. They had a wounded lion in New York All-Star forward Tina Charles, who sustained a back injury during the bye week we learned which cost practice time and explained why she spent an inordinate amount of time on the perimeter launching more threes than hooks. Charles refused to use it as an excuse but it did not change the fact that it led to a domino effect which saw the Liberty defeated in the area of their greatest strength, rebounding.
“The biggest component of tonight’s game was rebounding. They dominated against us 14-3 on offensive rebounds and 14-2 on team rebounds,” said Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer, “They took it to us and we knew it was a big key but we didn’t get it done. That was the big disparity along with turnovers and was the deciding factor.”
The other pillar New York hung its hat all year was perimeter defense and the ability to stay with roving guards. Then Kristi Toliver happened. She hit 10 of 20 shots including a WNBA Playoff record nine from three point land. The 30-year old changed the perception of the contest for good performing in superstar fashion shooting like Kobe Bryant and being as elusive as Kyrie Irving, those combined sneaker she wears which appeared to be the best fit for a player who is capable of getting hot in just such a fashion as tonight.
“To be on the right side of it was unreal,” said Donne of the Mystics, “We just rode her wave today. She was unconscious, but that’s her.”
The way Kristi (Toliver) was playing, the way she was getting the ball up, the way she was shooting, it twisted our defense having to stick with her longer. It took a toll,” said Charles.
“That was my biggest fear, Toliver making the ungodly shots that she does every now and then,” said Laimbeer.
Enthusiasm. The Mystics rode the Toliver train and the Liberty fell apart at the seems. Shavonte Zellous, who took a blow leading to a lower back injury in the first quarter eliminated her as a factor and the job Toliver did on the other end of the court on Epiphanny Prince, finished off the effectiveness of the big three which led the Liberty during their late surge to the postseason.
“We want to make them feel uncomfortable, “ said Thibault, “Kristi did a great job on Epiphanny Prince making her work to catch the ball and chasing her around the screens. It’s a hard task but it set the tone with our guards playing defensively.”
The Mystics outworked, outplayed and out smarted the Liberty at every juncture of the second half. Whenever the Liberty made a small run, Elena Delle Donne (18 points, 10 rebounds) would suddenly slam the door on them with threes that felt like sledgehammer blows. The Liberty had no answers to any of the problems that arose and the inability to make any effective adjustments leaves them off the court as it did on, clueless as to why they suffered elimination for the third straight year on their home court.
“I exhausted every option as far as leading the guys, holding them accountable from day one,” said Charles, “They (the Liberty team) played hard. I trust their decision making. I trust my guys. They (The Mystics) focused on the details on what it takes go win. ”
Washington goes on to the WNBA semi-finals against the Minnesota Lynx while New York ponders another lost season without a championship.