Kristi Toliver helps Washington Mystics return to WNBA Finals

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CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

LAS VEGAS– Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver ditched her knee brace after the first half of Tuesday’s thrilling Game 4 victory over the Las Vegas Aces.

“She looked like Forrest Gump out there,” Mystics star Elena Delle Donne joked. “Her leadership, her IQ, her being just downright clutch all came through. I’m just so proud of the way she’s been responding.”

Just like Forrest broke out of his leg braces, Toliver broke out with 10 third-quarter points as the top-seeded Mystics held off No. 4 seed Las Vegas 94-90.

Washington hosts the second-seeded Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET).

The Mystics clinched their return trip to the WNBA Finals behind several big-time performances. Elena Delle Donne led the way with 25 points, Emma Meesseman had 22, and Toliver — who missed 11 games this season with a bone bruise in her right knee — added 20 points and nine assists.

Kristi Toliver and Washington advanced to the WNBA Finals for the second straight season. David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

Toliver said the mental aspect was the hardest part of being sidelined because of an injury. She was aiming to return for the WNBA playoffs, but as the regular season wound down, she had her concerns.

The Mystics played well without her down the stretch. What would her role be coming back? How would her knee feel? Could she help the Mystics make the WNBA Finals for the second consecutive year?

Toliver answered the questions this past week as she returned to the court. She came up especially big on Tuesday. At halftime, feeling like she just wasn’t moving well enough, Toliver asked the Mystics athletic trainer if she could take off her knee brace. She said that helped her a lot.

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“It restricted me from playing downhill, and that was really frustrating,” Toliver said. “Because when teams switch, that’s when I usually can take advantage of the defense, but I haven’t been able to do that.

“Our trainer said, ‘If you feel OK, it’s OK.’ And from that moment on, I was more in attack mode and felt freer to move. When your shot’s not falling, that’s when you have to use that counter, and I was glad I was able to get rid of the brace.”

In her 11th season in the league, Toliver has been through all kinds of pressure situations. She spent seven years with the Los Angeles Sparks, helping them win the 2016 WNBA championship. A native of Virginia who played collegiately at Maryland and helped the Terps win the 2006 NCAA title with one of the most famous 3-pointers in women’s basketball history, Toliver has never been afraid to take big shots.

When her signature 3-pointer isn’t falling — and it wasn’t Tuesday, as she went 1-of-8 from downtown — she commits to taking the ball to the rim. As she explained, that’s especially where taking off the brace helped.

“I know what that’s like. It’s so frustrating to be in a moment like this and knowing that you’re maybe 65 to 70 percent,” said Delle Donne, who suffered a bone bruise during the semifinals last year and had to gut through the Finals. “You’re just trying to influence the game in a different way.”

Toliver started in place of Meesseman on Tuesday, as Mystics coach Mike Thibault tweaked his lineup in response to some of the struggles Washington had in Sunday’s Game 3 loss. The move worked for both players. Toliver had her best game of this postseason, and Meesseman was fantastic in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points. It was Meesseman’s third 20-point game of the semifinals. She was 4-for-4 on 3-pointers Tuesday.

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Meesseman is as low-maintenance as a player can be. Coming off the bench was no big deal for her; that’s what she did for much of the regular season. After scoring 57 combined points in the first two semifinal games, Meesseman had six in Game 3 and had no problem with Thibault’s decision to change the starting lineup. For Toliver, though, it meant a little more because she started until she was injured.

“Tonight, getting back into the starting lineup for me was my comfort zone,” Toliver said. “The injury has been pretty painful, and the crappy part is the only thing that really helps it get better is doing nothing. So it’s been about having to adjust to even the way I warm up.

“And defending Kelsey Plum in this series was hard because she is so shifty, and that’s where I struggle right now. But I’m just trying to continue to build, to try to get better every game. The pain at this point of the season is more mental. You play through it and let the adrenaline kick in.”

Toliver made two free throws with 13.9 seconds left, putting the Mystics up 93-90. Delle Donne is the free throw queen of the league, hitting 97.4% during the regular season and 93.8% for her WNBA career. But Toliver has made 88.1% of her free throws in her WNBA career.

There was no chance that she would miss these two that meant so much to her team. This is what Toliver lives to do, and doing it for the Mystics, she said, has meant all the more.

“This is what I wanted to come here for,” Toliver said of signing with Washington in 2017. “I want to help this franchise win a title.”

Now she’ll have another chance.

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