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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels in the Pros: Sanders, Breland face off for spot in WNBA Finals

Hatchell 2014
Sylvia Hatchell posed for this potrait ahead of the 2014 season opener, her first game back as UNC's head coach after a battle with leukemia.

The NBA and NHL champions of the 2018 calendar year have long been determined, the MLB is over a month away from the playoffs and the NFL is still in preseason. 

But all is not quiet in the world of professional sports. 

Tuesday night, three former North Carolina women's basketball players were in action in the WNBA playoffs. Jessica Breland and the Atlanta Dream defeated LaToya Pringle-Sanders and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt of the Washington Mystics, 78-75, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, G.A. The Dream's victory tied the best-of-five semifinal series at 1-1.

Pringle-Sanders, who has had arguably the most successful season of the three athletes, has had a big role in the Mystics’ playoff run. She has been a consistent starter for Washington, and her all-around game has given the team a boost throughout the postseason.

The forward posted eight points, nine rebounds and three blocks in game one on Sunday to help the Mystics take game one away from their home floor. She followed that up with an 11-point performance in Tuesday's loss.

Her teammate, Ruffin-Pratt, has been quiet, posting seven points Tuesday night and going scoreless Sunday. 

Sanders’ breakout moment of the playoffs came in Thursday’s 96-64 rout of the Los Angeles Sparks. Sanders stuffed the stat sheet, putting up 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks, all in less than 30 minutes of game time. 

It's worth taking a moment to read that stat line again. 

The former Tar Heel came close to a five-by-five, an exceedingly rare feat in which a player totals at least five marks in five different statistical categories. 

Her complete performance propelled Washington to an elimination-game defeat of the 2016 WNBA champions and helped earn the Mystics a spot in the best-of-five round. 

After the win, Sanders talked to the Mystics’ social media team about how her hardworking game contributes to her team's success. 

“I feel like that’s been my job, today,” she said. “Just bringing my athleticism to the team, running up and down the court, setting all the screens, getting offensive rebounds and just doing all the little things that can help us.”

The 6-foot-3, 170-pound forward’s reputation as a well-rounded, defensive stopper stems from her performance at North Carolina. 

Her junior season, she averaged 9.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and helped lead UNC to the Final Four in 2007. She finished said season with 121 blocks, the most in school history. Her defensive dominance translated into professional potential that was recognized by the Phoenix Mercury. The Phoenix Mercury selected her 13th overall in the 2008 WNBA draft.

But Sanders isn’t the only one making a defensive impact in the WNBA semifinals. Breland finished with 10 points and seven blocks in Tuesday night's win.

Breland’s ability to protect the rim is a large part of her success in the WNBA. She is third in the WNBA in blocks per game, averaging 1.9 this season. 

Though she has never averaged more than 10 points per game, (in 2014 she averaged 9.7), her impact in the post has earned her steady roles in the starting lineups for the Chicago Sky and now in Atlanta. 

Breland’s defensive ability was evident throughout her collegiate career. She steadily improved in her time at UNC and in her junior season, she averaged 3.1 blocks per game, which was first in the ACC. 

Breland and Sanders played together during the 2006-2007 campaign at North Carolina, which ended with an ACC Tournament Championship and Final Four appearance. Given the presence of the two rim protectors, it should come as no surprise that UNC was stellar defensively. The Tar Heels held 13 opponents under 50 points.  

Friday night, Breland and Sanders will share the court again, with both sides looking to take the series lead and advance to the WNBA Finals. Game three will take place at 8 p.m. on ESPNews. 


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