Sanders leads the Mystics’ defense along with guard Natasha Cloud, who holds things down on the perimeter while the 6-foot-2 center patrols the post. Washington has been drilling down on defense all week since its Game 2 loss — it will be the crucial factor against the Sun with Elena Delle Donne’s status unknown because of a herniated disk in her back. Thibault said the team will give an injury update on Delle Donne on Saturday.
What’s certain is that Sanders will have to be at her best. Which means she will be thinking of her family before the game.
“I really play mostly for them,” Sanders said.
A winding path brought Sanders, 33, to the Mystics. Drafted by Phoenix in 2008, she also played for Minnesota and Los Angeles before taking leave from the WNBA in 2011 so she could spend time with her terminally ill father, Reece Pringle, who died of cancer in 2012. She didn’t return to the WNBA until 2015, opting to stay home for at least part of the year so she could keep an eye on her mother and sister, though she did play abroad in Turkey during that time, competing both on a professional club and with the national team. (Sanders became a naturalized Turkish citizen in 2012.)
The decision to come back to the WNBA wasn’t one Sanders took lightly. It helped that, by the time she was considering a comeback, Washington owned her rights, so at least if she chose to play she would be relatively close to home — about a four-hour drive away from where her mother, Sharon, lives in North Carolina. Feelings of guilt about missing time with her family mingled with the desire to end a career on her own terms. Ultimately, she didn’t have to choose one over the other.
“I kind of felt guilty missing so much of my dad’s life later on and then not being around my mom and sister,” Sanders said. “But I know they love to see me play in the WNBA. My mom and sister and grandmother, at the time, could all see me play [in Washington], so I’d actually say I came back for them. Coach T was gracious enough to ask me to come back."
The reputation of Thibault as a players’ coach and the presence of Ivory Latta, Sanders’s college teammate from North Carolina, on the Mystics made Sanders comfortable with restarting her domestic basketball career with Washington.
Thibault liked her defense enough to make her the first sub off the bench in her first game with Washington even though she didn’t know any plays. That laid a foundation of trust that has continued into this season — Thibault often lets Sanders stand aside during drills in practice because she picks up plays and strategy so quickly.
Since then, Sanders has become a key part of the Mystics’ defense. She was second on the team behind Delle Donne in rebounding during the regular season, averaging 5.5 per game. In the playoffs, her rebounds have dipped slightly, to 4.3 per game, in part because she takes the hardest defensive assignment. In these playoffs that has meant taking on two bruising interior stars, 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage of Las Vegas and 6-6 Jonquel Jones of Connecticut.
Beyond her stats, Sanders is what Cloud and Thibault call Washington's glue player.
“Toya does stuff that doesn’t come up on the stat sheet, all the little things,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. “She’s battling some injuries; she could have sat down a long time ago if she wanted to. But you see her giving it her all. I mean she’s battling Liz Cambage all series, diving all over the floor. And when we see her, at that age — not saying she’s old — but when we see that, that brings us together and brings us energy. She’s one of those people who doesn’t say much, but when she does, we all lock in because she’s a vet."
Sanders has played the entire season with a torn labrum in her hip that eventually will require surgery, though probably not until she retires. The pain isn’t as bad when she’s playing as it is when she’s going about daily life, so she has refused to miss games.
That’s quite a change for someone who was ready to be done with the WNBA just a few years ago.
“It took me a while to find my role and my importance and what I can bring to a team. It took me being comfortable in Coach T’s system to realize, you know, I’m pretty good,” Sanders said with a laugh. “Sometimes you have to go until you find a place that fits you, and maybe I didn’t necessarily fit in in Phoenix and L.A. But five years later, and I’m still here, with more years to come.”