Kristi Toliver averaged 17.5 points and 4.9 assists for the Sparks this… (Chuck Myers / MCT )
Point guard Kristi Toliver always believed in herself.
That became obvious in the first month of the season when the Sparks trailed by two points with about two seconds remaining in a game against Tulsa. Toliver was playing terrible and had committed 14 turnovers, yet she took the last shot, swishing a step-back three-pointer to give the Sparks a 76-75 win.
That play helped earn her the nickname "Killer" and the deep admiration of her coach, Carol Ross.
"It might have been the worst ball game I've ever seen a player play," Ross said. "She had been torched by the other team, I had been ripping her up ... but there was something inside of her that she still wanted the ball in her hands for the last shot."
That confidence helped transform Toliver, who became the Sparks' leading scorer this season, averaging 17.5 points a game, up from 11.2 a year ago.
The Sparks begin a best-of-three playoff series Thursday against the San Antonio Silver Stars at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center. The Sparks won't be playing at Staples Center, where they are 16-1 this season, because of a showing of "Batman Live."
The Silver Stars (21-13), who finished third in the Western Conference, beat the Sparks (24-10) in three of their four games in part because of Toliver's erratic performance. She was scoreless in a 94-80 loss to San Antonio in June. But she matched her career high with 29 points in a 101-77 win on Aug 23.
"I think a lot of what we do depends on what she does," forward Candace Parker said of Toliver. "Obviously our success is a result of how well she's playing and how much she's contributing to this team."
It hasn't always been that way.
In her first three WNBA seasons, Toliver was mostly a bench player and averaged 9.2 points in about 20 minutes a game. Last year, she was the Sparks' third option on offense, at best.
It was a frustrating stretch for a player who knew she was capable of so much more.
"I felt like I was her Dr. Phil during that time period because I knew the agony that she was going through," said Kristi's father, George. "I'd say, 'Hang in there, you'll get your shot. Just be ready to perform when the time comes.' "
Toliver's father is a former NBA referee. When he'd review game tapes to evaluate his performance, Kristi would sit in his lap and study the players.
"I watched Michael Jordan growing up like a hawk," Kristi Toliver said. "I always wanted to take those kind of shots and be in those moments."
She had such a moment as a freshman at Maryland. In the NCAA title game against Duke, Toliver made a three-point shot over 6-7 Alison Bales with six seconds left to force overtime. The Terrapins won in overtime.
Her big opportunity came this season with a new coach who made the 5-foot-7 Toliver a starter and gave her 10 more minutes a game. Toliver didn't hesitate to take advantage.
"You don't have to tell Kristi to shoot," said Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones.
Not even when she's struggling.
"I love those big moments," Toliver said.