Column: For Chicago Sky fans, tomorrow is here with draft picks Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese

In this year’s SEC Tournament championship game, South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso and LSU forward Angel Reese battled it out in the paint. Two of the game’s biggest stars, they have a history of fierce, physical competition dating to high school.

On Monday night, as the Nos. 3 and 7 picks in a historic WNBA draft class, Cardoso and Reese became the Chicago Sky’s frontcourt of the future.

Nancy Thompson, a Chicago native and Sky fan since the team’s inception in 2006, said she couldn’t sleep and couldn’t work the night before the draft. A three-year season ticket holder, Thompson talked about having been with the team through tough years and wanting the feeling from the 2021 title season back.

She was hopeful, wearing a South Carolina cap and an aura of enthusiasm so strong you could almost touch it.

“We’ve got three picks in the top 15,” she said. “I’m wearing this hat for a reason. I’m excited.”

At the team’s draft party at Revolution Brewing, Thompson, former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and about 250 other fans and members of the team’s front office gathered to watch as Sky general manager Jeff Pagliocca and coach Teresa Weatherspoon got the players they wanted most. When the picks were announced, the taproom erupted. Thompson screamed and ran in a circle while recording the scene with her phone.

It was a new day in Skytown.

The Sky, who went 18-22 last season, entered the offseason with many questions and no draft capital. But Pagliocca made moves, trading three-time All-Star Kahleah Copper and Morgan Bertsch to the Phoenix Mercury for the pick that eventually landed Cardoso. And in a move that sent a message about what the team planned to do with its second first-round pick, he moved up one spot from No. 8 to No. 7 on Sunday in a trade with the Minnesota Lynx.

It was an aggressive move for a team that needed to make a splash. This was the kind of draft that could shift the direction of a franchise — and everything came up Chicago.

“We had a need to add somebody that size,” Pagliocca said of Cardoso. “But on top of her being 6-7, she’s a great athlete. She can run the court, she can outrun wings, bigs. She’s just scratching the surface of where she’ll become as a player.

“She’s got good hands. She’s a shot blocker. She’s won a national championship. She’s got a story, which is pretty important to us. That type of stuff goes a long way. She’s sacrificed a ton.”

Pagliocca said the Sky were hoping Reese would be available at No. 7 and took the opportunity to get her.

“There’s wrenches that get thrown into these situations,” he said. “There were great players there and we got the one that we were looking for. She is an absolutely relentless competitor. She pursues the ball better than anybody I’ve ever seen. She’s a winner.

“She comes from another winning program, another great coach. A player that fits the narrative that our coach wants to play with: relentless energy, toughness, grit. We’re looking for people that are going to come in here and fight.”

Photos: Inside the Chicago Sky’s WNBA draft watch party

In talking about the team’s top two picks, Pagliocca described what the Sky had been missing all last season: an identity. Cardoso and Reese, along with first-year coach Weatherspoon, bring a throwback defensive intensity that should help define the team and its culture.

“We have everything we need,” Weatherspoon added with a sure smile.

Without making any promises, Pagliocca and Weatherspoon made it clear winning is a priority. Cardoso, a two-time national champion at South Carolina, said she will bring her “winning leadership” and “winning mentality.”

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“We have a winning coach and we have a winning culture here,” Pagliocca explained. “We’re not that far removed from a championship. We’ve had great records, we keep making the playoffs. We needed players that are going to come in and want to make winning plays.”

The turnaround from the NCAA Tournament to the WNBA draft to the regular season is swift. The Sky open the season May 15 on the road against the Dallas Wings. Their first home game against back-to-back No. 1 picks Caitlin Clark and Aliyah Boston and the Indiana Fever on June 23 is already marked on calendars of fans across the league.

Downstairs in the taproom, a full-fledged party environment had taken over. There were shouts of joy, hugs and predictions of which games would be marquee matchups throughout the season. There was an electric energy in the room. Conversations about when — not if — the team would be a contender again filled the air.

The excitement wasn’t just in Chicago either. The Sky social media team’s posts were getting 5,000 likes every five minutes across multiple platforms, and the team’s accounts had gained 10,000-plus followers within the first hour of the picks being announced.

In New York, where the draft took place, Reese was asked if there’s a quote she lives by. She quoted rapper GloRilla: “Every day the sun won’t shine, but that’s why I love tomorrow.”

“Every day is not going to be a great day,” Reese continued, “and a lot of times in my life, I felt like I was down but always look to the next day because I know something else greater was going to happen.”

For Sky fans, tomorrow is here.