By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru @BlueStarMedia
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – University of Connecticut superstar senior Breanna Stewart was just getting started to respond to questions in the media area here Thursday night as the newly-minted overall No. 1 pick of the WNBA Seattle Storm.
Suddenly a big roar arose from the Mohegan Sun’s actual arena venue where the picks were being announced to the hopefuls, their families and coaches, and to the general public seated in the stands.
It was already known that Moriah Jefferson, one of Stewart’s two Huskies classmates, had quickly followed as the No. 2 pick of the San Antonio Silver Stars, sending the all-American point guard back to her native of Texas.
But the roar could mean only one thing, the confirmation that all-American Morgan Tuck, the third of the specially talented UConn trio involved in the draft, had gone overall No. 3 to the local WNBA Connecticut Sun.
Stewart banged both her fists on the table in front of her on the podium and uttered an emphatic “Yessss!!!,” the way the she often reacts after nailing a tough shot dating back to her formative AAU time spent with the Philadelphia Belles.
Only 10 days have passed since the trio completed an historic four-season domination of NCAA women’s basketball and fulfilling Stewart’s freshman proclamation of a perfect 4-0 in the national champions trophy department.
But on Thursday night the threesome authored another page of history, this time in the pros on becoming a first-ever 1-2-3 pick in the draft, this one being extra special, anyway, as the first major event of the WNBA’s 20th anniversary celebration.
It was an exclamation point to the recently concluded collegiate careers of Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck, but it was also appropriately, considering the neighboring casino, another jackpot for the UConn program under Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma, who now has guided the Huskies to an NCAA record 11 championships by either a men’s or women’s coach and six unbeaten records.
“It shows how special of a group we are,” Stewart said. “When we do something with the three of us, we do it together.
“We went in as freshmen together. We won four national championships together. Now, we all were drafted together. Every single one of us – Mo Morgan – could have gone number one in any draft class.”
But Stewart has become the best of all with three national player of the year honors and four most outstanding NCAA Final Four tournament player among a slew of well-deserved accolades.
When told of Stewart’s pause to cheer for Tuck, Jefferson said, “Yeah, we’re sisters, for sure.
“I was walking back trying to do an interview and I heard her name and I completely stopped, started clapping.
“I got so emotional. To be able to go through this journey the way that we have, and to accomplish the things we have – making history at the college level and now making history here – it’s something that’s unbelievable and you can’t really imagine anything being better.”
As for Tuck’s reaction on making history with her two classmates: “It was a great feeling, and I definitely agree.
“I think when you watch your good friends get drafted, I think it’s more special than yourself getting drafted,” she added.
“So I was super excited for Stewie, super excited that Mo gets to go back home to Texas. It was just great to be able to be out there with them and to see them live the dream.”
Tuck had the most arduous journey as an undergraduate, dealing with several knee injuries before eventually healing and making the latest edition of the Huskies greats of Gampel even more fearsome before deciding to give up her extra year of eligibility.
“This day means so much,” she said. “It’s kind of weird that it happened and we’ve already had rookie orientation this week. But I’m just really excited and my name was called already and that part of is over. I’m just really excited I’ll be here in Connecticut.
“The injuries, that’s been a part of the game, that’s been a part of my game of having to fight back from injuries,” Tuck said of her previous struggles.
“ So I think it’s just made me a better person, a better player. So I just tried to use my time as I sat out as a learning experience, and I think I have. I think it’s helped me quite a bit.”
In 2002 the senior UConn foursome of top pick Sue Bird (Seattle), No. 2 Swin Cash (former Detroit), No. 4 Asjha Jones (Washington), and No. 6 Tamika Williams (Minnesota), set a precedent going in the first six while the fifth starter, Diana Taurasi, went No. 1 to Phoenix two seasons later.
Obviously, EA Arts could make a bundle, if they would also pay the Huskies stars for likeness usage, to produce a game involving both squads, NCAA reaction notwithstanding.
UConn players have dominated the league with championships won by Taurasi, Maya Moore, Cash, Bird, Svetlana Abrosimova, Jen Rizzotti, Kara Wolters, Kalana Greene, Asjha Jones, Kelly Schumacher, Ketia Swanier, Charde Houston, and Rene Montgomery.
Auriemma coached six former Huskies on the 2012 United States Women’s Basketball National Team to an Olympic Gold Medal in London and will have a slew back again this summer in Brazil, likely including Stewart, who was the only collegian on the 2014 FIBA World Champions.
She said being with the USA squad helped her become accustomed to the physicality of play at the professional level.
Playing it safe, Stewart said she wasn’t ready to make any more outrageous predictions, but then playfully hinted it may be a short self-proclaimed ban in that department.
In Seattle, which recently officially lost Australian great Lauren Jackson to retirement, though she has not played in the Northwest the last several season due to injuries, Stewart will join a roster with Bird and former UConn star Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Former Maryland all-American Crystal Langhorne, a Philadelphia Belles star in the last decade, is also on the roster as is Jewel Loyd, the former Notre Dame star who gave up her last year of eligibility 12 months ago to turn pro and became rookie of the year.
Meanwhile, on a night when a new crop of collegiate hopefuls approached the aisle of impending marriage to the WNBA, the evening featured something old, something new, but little borrowed and no one was blue.
The new was in the draft being the first formal event for recently-hired WNBA president Lisa Borders, a former vice president of global community affairs at The Coca-Cola company who has been a fan of the league in Atlanta and participated in the initiative that brought the Dream franchise to the Georgia capital.
“Draft nights before have been exciting,” Borders said.
“The three to see, as we all recall, they brought tremendous talent, and I think that we have replicated that tonight and then some,” she referenced the 2013 draft that brought in Brittney Griner (Baylor/Phoenix), Elena Delle Donne (Delaware/Chicago), and Skylar Diggins (Notre Dame/Tulsa now becoming Dallas).
“These 12 (invitees) are really special. You’ve got the three young ladies from UConn, obviously. You’ve got Ms. (Rachel) Banham (Minnesota), who hits a three-point shot like nobody’s business,” she said of the Gophers star who scored 60 points in a game this season and went fourth to the Sun.
“You’ve got the bigs who are blocking shots like nobody’s business. I really think the quality of play is going to ratchet up even more, but draft night is all about celebrating the new future faces of the league.”
Something old was really something vintage.
On Wednesday with Lisa Leslie in the house, she joined with former UConn star Rebecca Lobo, now with ESPN, and Sheryl Swoopes, the three founding players reunited to recreate their picture pose from the inaugural 1997 season 20 years later.
Leslie had left prior to Thursday night, but the other two had a pre-draft session with the media and were joined by former WNBA All-Star Dawn Staley, who was on hand as South Carolina coach to support her senior Tiffany Mitchell, who was drafted in the first round ninth overall by the Eastern Conference playoff champion Indiana Fever.
“When the WNBA first started and just hearing what people had to say: You know, there’s no way it’s going to last; won’t be around that long,” Swoopes reflected. “And to be able to sit up here and look at us now, look at the W, the success of the league, I think kind of speaks for itself.”
Swoopes, a Texas Tech scoring machine who was one of the standouts of the former Houston Comets who won the first four WNBA titles, now coaches at Loyola of Chicago and was recently voted into the 2016 induction class of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“You know, the players are very different; the talent is very different, and without a doubt, it’s such an honor to still be involved with the WNBA in some capacity,” said Swoopes, who was honored by the league in the fall with a pioneer award.
As for the draft itself, while the UConn success was a story line of arrivals from the collegiate world, the Connecticut Sun itself, which calls Mohegan home, dominated the wheeling and dealing at the professional level with a blockbuster trade even before the complete 12 picks of the first of three rounds had finished being announced.
With new coach Curt Miller, a former Los Angeles Sparks assistant, at the helm in tandem with general manager Chris Sienko, one of a few separate coach/GM positions in the league, the Sun ramped up the local excitement after the UConn 1-2-3 became official by adding to taking Tuck at No. 3 with the selection of high-scoring Minnesota senior Rachel Banham at No. 4, a position acquired in an off-season deal with Atlanta.
Banham, who was on opposite sides when Miller coached the Indiana women in the Big Ten several years ago, was ecstatic.
“My heart was just beating very, very fast,” she said of the early wait to hear her name announced. “I really did want to come here so I was really hoping to hear my name. When I heard it, I was almost in shock, and I was so happy – so many emotions and I just can’t wait.”
After the new Dallas Wings, formerly the Tulsa and three-time WNBA champion Detroit Shock, took Michigan State’s Aerial Powers, another player who took advantage of a loophole to give up one more year of eligibility, George Washington senior Jonquel Jones, a native of the Bahamas, found out that scripts can change of the fly and sometimes two trips within minutes of each other are necessary to comment on one’s fate.
Taken sixth overall by the Los Angeles Sparks, thanks to a Sun swap with Connecticut craving the post play of Jones, one of the stars of the Atlantic 10 conference, She was back in short order to talk to the media after the league revealed the Sun had given L.A. the 15th and 23rd picks in Thursday’s draft, Connecticut’s No. 1 pick a year from now, and former Duke star Chelsea Gray, who was their top pick a year ago, while picking up Jones and the Sparks’ 17th pick in Thursday’s action.
“That’s life,” Jones said. “You have to be able to adapt and make changes. … I talked to coach Miller extensively. He felt my game could translate really well in his system. He told me that he was really high on me. If the opportunity presented itself, I knew he would try to do something.
“I know this team has a really good fan base. The people here get really excited about basketball. It makes me really excited. I’m really excited to suit up in a WNBA Jersey.”
The Sun in the second round used the fifth pick and 17th overall to take Jamie Weisner, who helped Oregon State land their first Final Four appearance, and in the third and final round, the Sun used the 27th overall and third pick of the round to take St. John’s Aliyyah Handford, whose Express teammate Danaejah Grant went 31st overall and seventh in the third round to Washington.
Rutgers saw two players taken with Kahleah Copper, the only Philadelphian selected, going seventh overall in the first round to the Washington Mystics, and Rachel Hollivay going 13th overall and first in the second round to the Atlanta Dream.
Copper will find familiarity when she gets to training camp next week in the nation’s capital with former Saint Joseph’s star Natasha Cloud from Cardinal O’Hara on the roster along with former Rutgers star center Kia Vaughn. Additionally, she will play only a few hours away from family and friends.
“It worked out perfectly,” Copper said. “I chose Rutgers because it was so close to home. Now, to be a part of the Washington Mystics is a dream come true. I am familiar with those players in Washington and excited to follow experienced veterans who know what they are doing.”
Many of the picks appeared energized and were more bubbly with the media than they were seen in their collegiate careers.
Texas’ Imani Boyette, who was taken 10th overall in the first round by the Chicago Sky, when asked if she was looking forward to playing with Elena Delle Donne, responded, “What type of loaded question is that??? Who doesn’t want to play with Elena Delle Donne. That’s a tongue twister, how do you’all say that all the time.
“I want to play with Elena Delle Donne. I think she’s amazing. In my fantasy, if I could do WNBA Build-A-Player with myself, I would make myself a little bit of Elena, a little bit of Brittney, a little bit of Sylvia (Fowles), and I’d be perfect. I’m excited to play with Elena Delle Donne. I’m excited to meet her.”
Many players who played on teams handled by UConn, paid tribute, some grudgingly, such as South Florida’s Courtney Williams, whose Bulls always lost to the Huskies in American Athletic and old Big East competition.
After initially admitting a dislike for Auriemma’s group, Williams reversed herself and gave the team a pass for the fans having cheered for Williams when it was announced she was going eighth overall to the former three-time champion Phoenix Mercury.
A former Philadelphia Belles player, Temi Fagbenle, who played for England in the London games and most of her career for Harvard before playing her last season of eligibility at Southern Cal, just missed the Ms. Irrelevent slot, taken in the third round at 11th and 35th overall by the defending champion Minnesota Lynx.
The last slot went to Georgia’s Shacobia Barbee, taken by the New York Liberty, who went for the injured Bulldog star because of the upside coach Bill Laimbeer thought she had in the team’s future.
Prior to her ACL in the stretch drive of the season, several times were expressing interest in Caroline Coyer, a Villanova senior and two-time Big Five player of the year.
Only four players from mid-major schools were picked in George Washington’s Jonquel Jones, James Madison’s Jazmon Gwathmey, the Colonial Athletic Association’s player of the year to Minnesota and then traded to San Antonio for veteran guard Jia Perkins, Florida Gulf Coast’s Whitney Knight, third and 15th overall to Los Angeles, and BYU’s Lexi Eaton Rydalch, second in the third round and 26th overall to Seattle.
The only two foreigners picked, not counting Jonquel Jones, were Bulgaria’s Lia Galdeira, seventh in the second round and 19th overall to Washington, and Belgium’s Julie Allemond, ninth in the third round and 33rd overall to the Indiana Fever.
The league will start play earlier on May 14 since play will suspend in late July until mid-August while many WNBA players compete as Olympians in Brazil.
As for what happens to everyone else during the month of inactivity?
“So of course we’re thinking about it,” the personable Borders said with a wink, “but it’s a secret. You’ve got to stay tuned. We want you to come back.
“We’re going to start this draft tonight and get this season tipped off. We’ll come back with more information about what’s going to happen during the Olympic break. But I don’t want to be a spoiler here and tell you everything.
“Great question, though.”