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Basketball's future in Connecticut never brighter

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Thursday night was a big night for the basketball players in the state of Connecticut in more ways than one. Things continue to look up for the Nutmeg State on the basketball court, particularly on the court in the very arena that the 2016 WNBA Draft was held in.

Chris Poss - Swish Appeal

Uncasville, CT -- Drafts, no matter what they are for, usually bring hope for everyone involved. The 2016 WNBA Draft not only brought hope, but also another "h" word that has become synonymous with basketball in the state of Connecticut: history, as in making history or being a part of historically great teams.

This year's draft featured three players who have become very familiar with making history. Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck were the first group of players to win four-straight National Championships.

They were also the first three players selected in the 2016 draft, marking the first time a group of players from the same school were drafted consecutively.

"It shows how special a group we are," Seattle Storm forward Stewart, a three-time Consensus National College Player of the Year, said. "When we do something with the three of us, we do it together. We went in as freshman together. Now, we are all drafted together. Every single one of us - Mo, Morgan - could have gone number one in any draft class."

Stewart definitely left her paw print on the Husky program, winning a record four Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four awards, while also blocking more shots than any other person to put on a UConn uniform (414) and scoring the second-most points (2,676).

This marks the fifth time a UConn player has been the first name called. Stewart joined Sue Bird in 2002, Diana Taurasi in 2004, Tina Charles in 2010 and Maya Moore in 2011.

The other two members of the Huskies "Big Three" definitely carried their own weight on the court. Jefferson was named the nation's top point guard twice, and is UConn's all-time assists leader with 659 while also finishing second in program history with 353 steals. Jefferson is from Dallas, Texas and is excited to be able to play professionally back home.

"(Someone) asked me if I'd rather go to Connecticut or San Antonio, and I was saying they both feel like home now. I've been here [Connecticut] my last four years now, but it feels great to be able to go back home in front of my family and my friends and just to be able to get a good ol' smell of Texas again."

Tuck was the last member of the Husky trio to be chosen in the first 15 minutes of the draft. The two-time Associated Press All-American was sometimes overshadowed at UConn, but was recognized in this year's NCAA Tournament when she was named to the Final Four All-American team.

"It was a great feeling," Tuck, the Connecticut Sun's first pick of the night, said. "I think when you watch your good friends get drafted, I think it's more special than yourself getting drafted. 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."

Jefferson and Stewart were paying close attention even after they were picked, rooting for their teammates when their respective names were called.

"Yeah, we're sisters, for sure," Jefferson said. "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."

Another basketball team in the state took significant steps Thursday night in the hopes of competing for championships the way UConn does seemingly every year. The Sun not only drafted Tuck third, but then selected an electric scorer in Rachel Banham from Minnesota.

Banham is the Big Ten career points leader, and tied a NCAA single-game record when she scored 60 points in a game against Northwestern.

"The 60-point game, I think that was kind of a turning point for me," Banham said. "It was definitely scoring, but I think it just put me over the edge. I was becoming a bigger offensive threat, and I was just doing more. I think it kind of put my team on the map and put me on the map a little bit; people were starting to watch. It just set me up for bigger games."

Banham averaged 28.6 points per game during her senior season, and said she already has a pretty good idea of what new Connecticut coach Curt Miller will want her to do on the court.

"(Miller) said, ‘I want you to score,'" Banham said. "You know, I hear that, ‘Absolutely, I'm coming there!' Just hearing that he wants you to score, he's just very comfortable to talk to, and I'm excited to work under him.

"I was talking to him, and he's a rookie as well. So it was nice to hear him say that we're going to learn together."

The Sun would add one more major piece to their rebuild plans before the draft was over. Connecticut acquired the sixth overall pick, 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones, as well as the 17th overall pick, in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks for two second round picks this year, guard Chelsea Gray and a 2017 first rounder.

"I'm happy to be a part of Connecticut," Jones said, after finding out she was traded from Los Angeles to Connecticut. "I'm happy to see where this takes me. I talked to Coach Miller extensively. He told me that he was really high on me. If the opportunity presented itself, I knew he would try to do something. He felt my game could translate really well in his system."

The tandem of Tuck, Banham and Jones is a nice mix of talented young players to jumpstart the rebuild for a team that will also be getting back Chiney Ogwumike, who missed the 2015 season with a knee injury. Who knows, the players the Sun walked away with from the 2016 Draft could be the next "big three" Connecticut basketball fans fall in love with.