For roughly the past two months, LaToya Sanders has traveled to six countries over two continents to play basketball virtually nonstop. Such were her commitments to the Turkish national team before and during the Olympics in Brazil, where she helped her adopted country to the brink of the medal round.
Even after the Rio de Janeiro Games concluded on Sunday, Sanders is continuing her grueling schedule. The 6-foot-3 forward came back to the District early this week to rejoin the Washington Mystics , who resume their season on Saturday night at the Indiana Fever following the month-long Olympic break.
Sanders underwent a physical examination on Wednesday morning and has been practicing for the past several days. The return of the defensive specialist who finished second in the WNBA last year in blocks comes at just the right time. The Mystics will be without power forward Tianna Hawkins indefinitely because of concussion symptoms.
“It has been a long summer, but I knew it was going to be like that, that there was a possibility it would be like that if we qualified” for the Olympics, said Sanders, who grew up in North Carolina and is a naturalized citizen of Turkey. “I knew what I was getting myself into when I signed a new contract here. Plus I still had obligations with my national team. I can’t complain. I’m blessed just to be playing basketball.”
Sanders did some of her best work in Rio, including collecting game highs of 22 points, 10 rebounds and four steals in a 64-62 quarterfinal loss to Spain. Her final steal came off a trap in the closing stages, and Sanders soon after scored a layup with four seconds to play to tie the game at 62.
Spain moved on to the semifinals when Anna Cruz, formerly with the Minnesota Lynx, sank a runner as time expired. The basket capped a 12-2 surge by the Spaniards, who lost to the United States in the gold medal game, 101-72, last Saturday.
Sanders, 29, was the only member of the Mystics to participate in the Olympics.
“It was more than I ever imagined,” she said. “I still can’t even believe I just came from there. My family was there. We made it to the quarterfinals, lost on a buzzer-beater, but how can you be disappointed when you’re playing at such an event? People only dream of going to the Olympics, and I can say I was there, and I was an Olympian.”
With Sanders back in the fold, the Mystics (9-15) are seeking to end a season-long seven-game losing streak. It’s the longest slide under Mike Thibault, who took over as coach and general manager in 2013 and transformed the club from afterthought to postseason regular.
Washington hasn’t won since June 29, when it defeated the San Antonio Stars, 84-67, for its fifth win in six games. At the time, the Mystics had moved above .500 for the first time this year and occupied the fifth seed in the eight-team chase for the playoffs. They entered Friday’s games in a tie for eighth, with six teams within three games of one another for the final three berths.
The Mystics last played on July 22, losing to the Los Angeles Sparks, 95-75, at Verizon Center. Following that game, Thibault gave his players the next two weeks off to rest and recuperate. The Mystics have been dealing with ailments all season, and in addition to the latest to befall Hawkins, reserve forward Ally Malott is nursing a sore calf.
“These last couple weeks have been like our training camp,” Thibault said. “Get back to basics, pace of the game, defensive principles, blocking out, all the kind of back-to-basics things you do. Getting LaToya back has helped the defensive part of it. We didn’t make anything really complicated. It’s kind of you do the stuff that accentuates what we’re best at.”
The first home game for the Mystics following the Olympic break is on Sunday against San Antonio, which is without leading scorer Kayla McBride. The sharp-shooting guard is out for the season with a broken foot.
The majority of Washington’s opponents over the final 10 regular season games are part of the jumbled group jockeying for the playoffs. They Mystics own tiebreakers over the Seattle Storm, which entered Friday with the same record as Washington, and a half-game ahead of Dallas, which like Seattle was scheduled to play late Friday night. Indiana sits in the fifth playoff spot at 12-12.
“Everybody did a great job of staying focused [during the Olympic break] and just being ready,” Mystics point guard Ivory Latta said. “This is the second half of our season that we really have to focus on and definitely make the playoffs.”