On Sunday night, the second round of the WNBA playoffs was headlined by a pair of higher-seeded teams being upset on their home floor. After the Connecticut Sun were defeated by the Phoenix Mercury, the Washington Mystics knocked off the New York Liberty 82-68 to advance to the semifinal round. While the Mercury will play the No. 2 seed Los Angeles Sparks, the Mystics will face the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx. But, here are three reasons why Washington was able to upset the third-seeded Liberty and end New York’s 10-game winning streak.
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1. Kristi Toliver
She was an NCAA champion at Maryland and a WNBA champion last year with the Los Angeles Sparks. It’s safe to say Kristi Toliver knows how to win on the biggest stages of women’s basketball, and that’s why Mystics’ head coach and general manager Mike Thibault went after her in free agency last offseason. It was for playoff games like Sunday’s why Washington signed Toliver, who led the Mystics with 32 points and set a WNBA record by drilling nine three-pointers in the game. Alongside All-Star forward Elena Delle Donne, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds in the game, Washington always plays its best basketball when the supporting cast around her steps up. On Sunday, it was Toliver who led the charge, and Delle Donne opened up about what it means to have Toliver on the floor.
“I’ve never witnessed something like that,” Delle Donne said after the game in reference to Toliver’s performance. “But to be on court and be on the right side of it was unreal. We just rode her wave today. She was unconscious. But that’s her. I grew up watching her and that was her in the national championship game. So when she’s going off like that, we just do all the other little things and let her go. She’s such a great leader and such a knowledgeable player that I feel like just being on court with her I’ve learned so much.”
Toliver also had her own words to describe her performance on Sunday against the Liberty.
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Having Toliver’s playoff experience will be vital for Washington moving forward in the postseason.
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2. An improved defensive performance as the game went on
Washington’s defense struggled in the first quarter, as the Liberty built a 21-10 lead on 56 percent shooting from the field in the first 10 minutes. New York was pushing the ball up the floor and getting good looks in the paint, outscoring the Mystics 16-2 around the rim. All-Star forward Tina Charles already had eight points in the contest, and it looked as if the Liberty was on its way to another impressive win.
The second quarter saw Charles reach 11 points and New York find its touch from behind the three-point line, hitting four three-pointers in the second period. But Washington began making strides defensively, as the Mystics accumulated seven steals and had forced the Liberty into nine turnovers in the first half. By the intermission, the Mystics had cut the lead to 41-35.
“We wanted to make their guards feel really uncomfortable and we felt that we could do a job on the other players,” Thibault said after the game.
But in the second half, Washington’s defense became even stronger. New York made only four baskets, including one three-pointer, in the third quarter as the Mystics took a 60-51 lead into the fourth quarter. Charles now had 15 points, but the offense was cooling off. Not to mention, the Liberty had committed 10 turnovers.
By the end of the game, the Liberty finished with 15 turnovers and shot just under 37 percent from the field in the second half. The Liberty shot just over 31 percent from three in the second half too. Charles finished with 18 points, but she only had three made field goals after halftime.
“Our strategy has just been to play team defense and to make our opponents see five bodies in front of them when they’re going to the basket,” said Mystics center Krystal Thomas, who poured in 11 points on Sunday. “Not giving them easy stuff, just taking away the paint, and forcing them to their weak hand. We just want to make them play 5-on-5. Making them see bodies and making them work.”
New York had the best rebounding team in the league this season. Not surprisingly, it outrebounded Washington in all three contests between both teams during the regular season. However, the Mystics were able to beat the Liberty at its own game and dominate the glass on Sunday.
Thomas reflected on how Washington was able to outrebound New York on Sunday.
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But it didn’t start off very well for Washington. The Liberty more than doubled the Mystics in the rebounding department with a 13-6 advantage after the first quarter, as well as a 12-2 advantage in defensive rebounds. Again, the Liberty was in control and playing its style of basketball after one quarter on Sunday.
But in the second quarter, the tide turned. Washington outrebounded New York in the second quarter 12-7, including a 10-2 offensive rebounding advantage. As a result, the Mystics’ offense began to awake from its slumber. After the Liberty held a 16-2 points in the paint advantage in the first quarter, New York only held a 20-16 advantage heading into halftime. In addition, the Mystics had nine second chance points in the first half, while the Liberty only had three.
By the end of the third period, Washington was outrebounding New York for the entire game (29-26) and had extended its offensive rebounding advantage to 12-3. Not to mention, Washington was now outscoring the Liberty 15-3 in second chance points.
The Mystics finished the game with a 37-33 rebounding advantage, including outrebounding New York on the offensive glass 14-3. It outscored the Liberty 17-3 in the second chance points, limiting New York to neither an offensive rebound nor any second chance points after intermission. Ultimately, it was Washington’s ability to control the glass and create second chance opportunities that woke up its offense and froze New York’s offensive attack.
“I think it was just focus,” Mystics guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said after the game. “Doing what we know how to do. We know they’re one of the best rebounding teams in the league so we just had to go in and play hard.”