Kristi Toliver suffers knee injury; Mystics can’t clinch playoff spot

LOS ANGELES — Brittney Sykes crouched in the corner near the Washington Mystics’ bench, leaning on her toes and resting on her haunches as she stared straight ahead. The rest of her teammates were gathered near the three-point line to surround guard Kristi Toliver, who remained on the court in pain.

Last week’s joyous celebration of the roster finally being whole was short-lived: The Mystics finished Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Sparks with just seven fully healthy players. In their 72-64 loss, they also missed an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. They have three games left.

“We haven’t done anything the easy way this year, so we’re going to have to go earn it these last three games,” Coach Eric Thibault said.

The Mystics came into the game without starters Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin after they went down Thursday in a loss at Las Vegas. Atkins suffered a broken nose, and Austin reinjured the hip that kept her out nearly two months earlier this season.

But that was just the beginning. On Sunday, Toliver crumpled between the three-point and half-court lines as she tried to make a move in the final seconds of the first quarter. The 36-year-old was carried off the court with a right knee injury and did not return. Thibault said she will have an MRI exam, but he was not optimistic.

“I’m not going to lie: Emotionally, I’m shocked,” the Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne said. “You try to do the whole thing where you want to rally for [Toliver], but we were sick. Just sick. What she’s been through with her foot, how much she’s worked to get back — and she’s feeling good. She’s talking about even next year and all those things. To see something like that happen at this point in her career, it just sucks. … She’s such a great person. So it’s brutal.”

Added Sykes: “The s— broke our hearts.”

From last week: Mystics are finally injury-free as they make their final playoff push

Then, less than a minute into the second quarter, Queen Egbo went down with an ankle injury. She walked off under her own power but remained on the bench for the rest of the half. She returned for a brief stretch in the second half, but the Mystics played with a seven-player rotation most of the rest of the way.

As for the game, it was a back-and-forth affair, and the Mystics took a 58-57 lead on an Egbo layup with 6:02 remaining. They would score just six more points as the Sparks found lanes to the rim and got to the free throw line. After Egbo’s go-ahead basket, Los Angeles got back-to-back three-point plays from Karlie Samuelson and Layshia Clarendon and never trailed again.

Neither team shot particularly well, but Washington was 6 for 7 from the free throw line while Los Angeles was 21 for 24.

“It just was such a hectic game that it felt like they were in control of and we weren’t,” said Delle Donne, who had eight points and six rebounds. “We were super reactive constantly on all sides of the ball. And that’s the way they play. They run traps at you. They play hectic. That’s how they want you to play. And I think that’s what you saw at the end of the game — them being able to spread us out, us feeling like we couldn’t leave our shooters, so we weren’t there for each other and gaps.”

Clarendon scored a game-high 15 points, Jordin Canada added 14, and Dearica Hamby chipped in 12 as the Sparks (16-21) won without 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, a late scratch with a left knee injury. Sykes led the Mystics (17-20) with 14 points. Li Meng and Myisha Hines-Allen added 11 apiece off the bench.

Here’s what else to know about the Mystics’ loss:

The Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty, Connecticut Sun, Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx have clinched playoff spots, leaving three up for grabs. The Dream and Mystics are 17-20; Atlanta currently holds the tiebreaker for sixth place, but they meet Friday in Washington. The Sparks are in the No. 8 slot, a game ahead of the Chicago Sky (15-22).

“We’re all aware. … We’ve been aware,” Sykes said. “We had a chance to control our fate, in a sense, and give us some cushion when it comes to these last couple games. And every game is a big game. So there’s no pressure in one big game. This was just a game where we had an extra opportunity to get a solidified spot in the playoffs. We still have that opportunity.”

The Mystics conclude their three-game trip Tuesday night at Phoenix. After Atlanta visits Friday, the Mystics close the season Sunday at New York.

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