Mystics lose Kristi Toliver to a cruciate ligament tear, ending their injury-plagued season

PHOENIX — Natasha Cloud couldn’t even reply to the text message. She and the entire Washington Mystics roster had received a message from Kristi Toliver, confirming what they already knew: the three-time WNBA All-Star Guard and starter on the 2019 Mystics championship team would miss the rest of the season.

Toliver suffered a cruciate ligament tear in his right knee with the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday, the Mystics announced Tuesday, ending her injury-plagued return to Washington after playing just 11 games. Toliver returned to action last week after missing more than two months with plantar fasciitis in her right foot.

“Woooo I couldn’t even get her texting us about what was going on yesterday,” Cloud said at the team’s shoot-around ahead of Tuesday night’s game against the Phoenix Mercury. “I haven’t even texted her yet because I’m trying to get through this game without being soft and emotional. And if I respond to that, it will really move me, because “Panda” means so much to me. That’s why I want to bring this victory to them. I want to cement the playoffs for them.”

The injury list mounts again as the Mystics crash in Los Angeles

The Mystics did it right this Tuesday night. After 24 points from Elena Delle Donne (on her 34th birthday) and 20 points and 10 assists from Cloud, Washington defeated runner-up Mercury 100-77 to secure a playoff berth, sixth in seven years. The record is 18-20 with two games remaining – Friday against Atlanta and Sunday in New York.

Toliver’s return to Washington was celebrated in the off-season. She was a much-needed marksman who had a long relationship with Mystics players and coaches, having previously worked for the team from 2017-2019. She also brought with her a strong basketball spirit, which was evident in her role as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks during the NBA season. The Virginia native helped Maryland beat Duke and win the 2006 women’s national basketball championship and was named the 2012 WNBA’s Most Improved Player. She won her first WNBA title with the Sparks in 2016.

“[We] “Without Kristi, there is no championship,” said Mystics coach Eric Thibault.

Off the field, the 36-year-old is the embodiment of the cool, wise veteran. At Toliver’s suggestion, Cloud has even attempted to adjust her own leadership style, balancing her natural, energetic “rah-rah” side with a softer note. Cloud puts an imaginary crown on Toliver’s head after being introduced to the starters in each game. Now Toliver’s future is uncertain.

“At the end of the day, your sister goes down and gets hurt,” Cloud said, “and someone who has really spent so much time this season just coming back to help us and make us better.” And even in the moments when she couldn’t be on the pitch, she still made an impact on us, made an impact on me and coached us on the sidelines. Panda is a very special player – not just her mind [but] who she is as a leader, who she has become.”

Toliver was only back in the third game after struggling with plantar fasciitis, a nagging injury that was difficult to rehab. Some days she felt fine, and then that changed overnight. It was a long time before I was able to get back into basketball activities.

On Sunday in Los Angeles, Toliver checked in and quickly pulled up a pull-up threesome that proved his impeccable form. Not long after, she attempted to change direction to outplay the first-quarter buzzer with a long three-pointer, but she relented when her knee gave out.

Toliver had previously spoken out about the frustration that came with the foot injury and acknowledged injuries are tougher at this stage of her career.

“I would say my mental space was the biggest challenge,” she said, “simply because I couldn’t do both of the things I love — from basketball to golf to walks and all the days that I could.” Dont do anything. I’ve definitely had a lot of dark days. It’s not where you want to be. It can get very dark, especially as you get older, knowing that the opportunities to be on the dance floor diminish as you get older. So try to stay as positive as possible. … It wasn’t a joy to be with me every day.”

It was impossible not to think about it while Toliver was on the pitch on Sunday. She was eventually carried away. Brittney Sykes crouched in a corner of the field, struggling with the moment. Li Meng comforted Delle Donne as the entire team except Sykes surrounded Toliver on the ground.

Sykes and Delle Donne struggled to talk about Toliver’s injury after Sunday’s game.

“We all broke down,” Sykes said. “The S— broke our hearts because she is so important to us. She’s a silent assassin. She doesn’t say much, but when she opens her mouth, she says, “Shut up and listen.” … It’s really a sore point, folks. We literally couldn’t sit and pray together. We tried to pray but we barely managed to finish the prayer because we were so hurt. Even now we are holding back the tears.”

Surgery to repair Toliver’s knee was not scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon. The Mystics sent Toliver and Shakira Austin (hip) home from Los Angeles on Monday while the team continued on to Phoenix. Thibault said he would love to have Toliver in the team but wasn’t sure how that would work given how difficult it could be for them to move.

Toliver ended her season with an average of 3.6 points and 9.0 minutes.

“We knew straight away it wasn’t good,” said Thibault. “So it’s tough. And I think that now, to some extent, you probably feel like you’re playing for them.” Mystics lose Kristi Toliver to a cruciate ligament tear, ending their injury-plagued season

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