By Jon Gallo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 10, 2006; E03
For the Washington Mystics' key decision makers, awarding the final roster spot was an easy choice, but no one expected just how important a role Nakia Sanford would play.
"Who would have thought I'd be saying this now," Coach Richie Adubato said. "But where would we be without her?"
Certainly not in contention to earn a WNBA playoff spot, which is exactly where the Mystics are after an 89-83 victory over the Chicago Sky yesterday in front of 7,618 at Verizon Center. Sanford posted a career- and game-high 25 points to go along with seven rebounds, and the Mystics (10-10) entered the all-star break in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The top four teams in each conference make the playoffs.
"Nakia has become a great story," Adubato said. "She's shown what you can do when you get an opportunity."
For Sanford, the chance to develop into one of the team's best post players arose when starting power forward DeLisha Milton-Jones (12.8 points per game) suffered a knee injury June 17 that could force her to miss the rest of the regular season. Sanford, who broke her right pinkie playing in Italy during the offseason and refused to undergo surgery for fear she would be cut by the Mystics, has flourished since moving into the starting lineup.
The 6-foot-4 forward is averaging 9.2 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds to justify management's decision in mid-May to waive Kaayla Chones and Aiysha Smith and keep Sanford in Washington for a fourth consecutive season.
"I've used the way management viewed me to motivate me," said Sanford, whose previous career high in points was 17 against San Antonio in 2004. "I knew I could play at this level. But what's most important was that we won the game, and if I was the one scoring the points, that's great."
"Everybody else is surprised by what Nakia has given us, but we're not," said guard Alana Beard, who had 10 points and four assists. "We always knew she had very high potential and she's showing what she can do."
Sanford was unstoppable in the low post. She made a career-high 10 of 14 shots and made 5 of 10 free throws as Washington ended a two-game losing streak.
"Layups, that's how she got all her points," Chicago Coach Dave Cowens said. "I could have had that many if I had layups like that."
Mystics center Chasity Melvin had 20 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, and forward Crystal Robinson added 14 points as Washington pushed its lead over fifth-place New York to five games with 14 remaining.
"After all we've been through, we're in the playoff hunt, but we still should be higher in the standings," said guard Nikki Teasley, who posted eight points and a game-high six assists. "I think this win should give us a lot of confidence and momentum heading into the second half of the season."
The Mystics led 46-38 entering the third quarter, but the Sky refused to go away, as it had done in each of the previous 14 games in which Chicago trailed at the half. The Sky fell behind by 11 points, but closed to within 55-53 following Bernadette Ngoyisa's layup with 5 minutes 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
So Adubato did the only thing he could: He inserted Sanford. Sanford, who had scored seven points earlier in the period, added two layups to enable Washington to take a 67-63 lead into the final quarter.
Chicago pulled to within 85-82 with 50 seconds to play, but Melvin followed her layup with two free throws on the next possession to put away the game.
? MERCURY 94, LIBERTY 88: Diana Taurasi scored a career-high 36 points and rookie Cappie Pondexter added 22 as Phoenix won in overtime, handing New York its season-high fifth straight loss.
? SHOCK 66, COMETS 60: Ruth Riley made her first seven shots and finished with 16 points to lead Detroit to its first victory in seven trips to Houston.
?FEVER 74, STORM 62: Tamika Catchings had 20 points and eight rebounds, and Indiana withstood a late rally to win in Seattle to snap a two-game losing streak.
? MONARCHS 70, STING 61: Kara Lawson scored 16 points and Nicole Powell had 12 as host Sacramento won its third straight and fifth in six games.
? LYNX 85, SILVER STARS 80: Minnesota rookie Seimone Augustus tied a career high with 32 points and led a fourth-quarter charge that erased a 12-point deficit and snapped visiting San Antonio's four-game winning streak.