Even-keeled LaToya Sanders keeps things calm for Mystics

LaToya Sanders, who played college basketball at UNC, averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in the regular season, both WNBA career bests. Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

The night that the Washington Mystics advanced to the franchise's first WNBA Finals, someone special was on LaToya Sanders' mind.

"Today would have been my dad's 60th birthday," she said in a joyous locker room on Sept. 4 in Atlanta after Game 5 of the semifinals. "I felt his presence with me.

"I think I have a lot of my dad's personality; he was pretty calm and even-keel. He would tell me to treat big games like a normal game; don't get nervous, keep the same routine. Control what I can control. He was always my calming person to keep me not being too high or too low."

And that's what she will take into Game 3 of the WNBA Finals on Wednesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) as well. The Mystics' backs are to the wall after losing the first two games of the best-of-five series in Seattle. But Sanders, who coach Mike Thibault said has been a glue player all season, will try to keep Washington focused on one thing: Win this one, then think about the next one.

"I don't know where we would be without her," Thibault said. "With Emma [Meesseman] taking the season off and a lot of uncertainties, LaToya has been terrific."

Sanders, who turned 32 on Tuesday, has a lengthy history as an undersized post player who finds a way to get the job done. She's 6-foot-3, but with a lithe build more like a high jumper than a grind-in-the-paint center in basketball. Quickness, agility, lateral movement and good instincts have served her well, along with her hops.

"I don't think I jump as high as I used to or am as quick as I used to be," said Sanders, chuckling. "But I'm blessed that even with the injuries, I've been able to bounce back close to what I was before. Some of that is genetics; when I do get injured, I don't put on a lot of weight or get out of shape. I'm lucky in that aspect.

"So I'm trying to focus on keeping my quickness, because this league is getting taller, and I'm playing the center. I'm one of the smallest in the WNBA at that."

As LaToya Pringle during her college career at North Carolina -- she later married former UNC men's player Byron Sanders -- she was part of two Final Four teams. And she was routinely given the toughest defensive assignments. Three fellow post players she competed with while at North Carolina -- Phoenix's Camille Little, Atlanta's Jessica Breland and Minnesota's Erlana Larkins -- all have had successful WNBA careers, too.

Little gives credit to former Tar Heels standout Charlotte Smith, who coached all four when she was an assistant at North Carolina. Smith, a former WNBA player, is now head coach at Elon.

"She was a huge, huge factor in our IQ as post players, our tenacity and just being tough," Little said of Smith. "We played against her in practice a lot, and we learned from her. She's savvy -- she played in this league."

Sanders said the UNC sisterhood has remained strong. They all went to the funeral in August of the father of another Tar Heel, guard Ivory Latta, formerly of the Mystics. Sanders went through that loss herself when her father, Reece Pringle, died of cancer in 2012.

"He's the one that got me playing the game of basketball," Sanders said. "I just wish my dad were here to see me play now.

"I haven't had the most traditional WNBA career. In the early part, I bounced around a bit and didn't get much playing time until I ended up here in Washington a couple of years ago. And even when I joined Washington, from a mixture of injuries, to family things I had to take care of, to commitments with the Turkish national team, I've been in and out."

"She just brings a calm, a consistency, and efficiency that is so great and so necessary. And defensively, she can guard such a range of players." Elena Delle Donne on teammate LaToya Sanders

Sanders was drafted by Phoenix in 2008, then was in Minnesota in 2009 and Los Angeles in 2011. She didn't come back to the WNBA until 2015 with Washington, playing 23 games with the Mystics that season, four in 2016 and none last year. During all that time, though, she played in Turkey, where she became fluent in Turkish and was on the national team.

Sanders sat out the 2017 WNBA season for surgery, then played last winter with Russia's UMMC Ekaterinburg, which won the EuroLeague final four title. With UMMC, she split time with Meesseman, who didn't play in the WNBA this summer because of Belgian national team commitments.

"I had always felt LaToya was one of the better defensive players in the league when she was here," Thibault said. "And we thought there was a better offensive player in there, too."

This season, Sanders averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds, both WNBA career bests. In the playoffs, she's at 8.4 and 6.1.

"She just brings a calm, a consistency, and efficiency that is so great and so necessary," Mystics teammate Elena Delle Donne said. "And defensively, she can guard such a range of players. She'll guard Natasha Howard or Brittney Griner or Liz Cambage."

"I don't know where we would be without her, ... LaToya has been terrific." Mystics coach Mike Thibault

Sanders had to sit out the early part of this WNBA season while dealing with anemia, something that she said flared up her freshman year in college, too, but not to the extent it did this time.

"When I came into training camp here and was about to pass out 10 minutes into practice, I actually cried a little bit," Sanders said. "I was like, 'What is it now?' But this is something I'll have to deal with the rest of my life. I do have days where I feel exhausted, but we've been balancing it out with iron infusions and iron pills. There's some nausea that follows the infusions after getting so much iron pumped into your body. It's not the greatest feeling, but then I'm OK.

"And overall, since I've been seen by the blood specialist, I've been feeling so much better. I didn't even know I was feeling that bad until I knew how it felt to feel good."

Regardless of how the WNBA Finals go, Sanders is grateful for the experience of this season and looks forward to more.

"This is my 11th professional year; I haven't taken a full year off since college," Sanders said. "To be 11 years in and still playing at this level, it's a blessing. I've had the support of my family.

"I feel like I have nothing to prove to anybody, but playing in the WNBA is a pride thing. I like playing in the U.S., and my family can see more games here. It just means a lot to me."