Mystics lose Kristi Toliver to a torn ACL, ending her injury-plagued season

PHOENIX — Natasha Cloud couldn’t even respond to the text. She and the entire Washington Mystics roster had gotten a message from Kristi Toliver that confirmed what they already knew: The three-time WNBA all-star guard and starter on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team would miss the rest of the season.

Toliver suffered a torn ACL in her right knee Sunday at the Los Angeles Sparks, the Mystics announced Tuesday, ending her injury-plagued return to Washington after she appeared in just 11 games. Toliver had returned to action last week after missing more than two months with plantar fasciitis in her right foot.

“Woooo, I couldn’t even with her texting us what it was yesterday,” Cloud said at shoot-around before Tuesday night’s game against the Phoenix Mercury. “I haven’t even sent her my text yet because I’m trying to get through this game without being soft and emotional. And if I go into that, it’s really going to trigger me because of how much ‘Panda’ means to me. So I want to get this win for her. I want to solidify playoffs for her.”

Injury list grows again as the Mystics take a tumble in Los Angeles

Toliver’s return to Washington was celebrated in the offseason. She was a much-needed shooter who had a long relationship with Mystics players and coaches after a previous stint with the team from 2017 to 2019. She also brought a strong basketball mind, evidenced by her role as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks during the NBA season. The Virginia native helped Maryland beat Duke to win the 2006 women’s basketball national championship and was named the WNBA’s most improved player in 2012. She won her first WNBA title with the Sparks in 2016.

“[We] don’t have a championship without Kristi,” Mystics Coach Eric Thibault said.

Off the court, the 36-year-old is the personification of the cool, wise veteran. Cloud has even tried to adjust her own leadership style at Toliver’s suggestion, balancing her natural, energetic “rah-rah” side with a softer touch. Cloud places an imaginary crown on Toliver’s head after being introduced with the starters each game. Now, Toliver’s future is uncertain.

At the end of the day, that’s your sister going down and getting hurt,” Cloud said, “and someone that’s really devoted so much of her time this season to just trying to get back to help us and make us better. And even moments where she wasn’t able to be on the court, still depositing into us, depositing into me, coaching us on the sideline. Panda’s a really special player — not only her mind [but] who she is as a leader, who she’s grown to be.”

Toliver was in just her third game back after dealing with plantar fasciitis, a nagging injury that was difficult to rehabilitate. Some days she would feel good, and then that would change overnight. It took a long time just to get back to basketball activities.

In Los Angeles on Sunday, Toliver checked in and quickly made a pull-up three-pointer, showing pristine form. Not long after, she attempted to change directions to beat the first-quarter buzzer with a long three-point attempt, but she buckled as her knee gave way.

Toliver had previously talked about the frustration that came with the foot injury and acknowledged that injuries hit harder at this stage of her career.

“I would say my mental space was the most challenging,” she said, “just because both of the things that I love, I wasn’t able to do — from basketball to golfing to going for a walk to all the days I couldn’t do anything. Definitely have had a lot of dark days. It’s not the place that you want to be. It can get really dark, especially as you get older, because you know the opportunities to be on the floor as you get older become less and less. So just try to stay positive as much as I could. … I wasn’t a joy to be around every day.”

That part of it was impossible not to think about as Toliver lay on the court Sunday. She was eventually carried off. Brittney Sykes crouched in the corner of the court, struggling with the moment. Li Meng consoled Elena Delle Donne as the entire team, other than Sykes, surrounded Toliver on the floor.

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 of how crucial she is to us. She’s a quiet assassin. She don’t say much, but when she opens her mouth, it’s like, ‘Shut up and listen.’ … It’s really a sore spot, guys. We literally could not huddle and pray. We tried to pray, and we barely can make it through the prayer because of how hurt we were. Even now, we’re holding back tears.”

Surgery to repair Toliver’s knee had yet to be scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon. The Mystics sent Toliver and Shakira Austin (hip) home from Los Angeles on Monday as the team continued on to Phoenix. Thibault said he would love to have Toliver around the team but was unsure how that would work, considering how difficult it could be for her to move around.

Toliver ends her season averaging 3.6 points and 9.0 minutes.

“We knew it wasn’t good right away,” Thibault said. “So it’s tough. And I think there’s probably a feeling now of playing for her to a degree.”

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