NEWARK, N.J. -- The pride of Kentucky has returned to a place it hasn't been in far too long.
The longest Final Four drought of college basketball's winningest program came to one jubilant end Sunday night in Newark, N.J. The Kentucky men's basketball team, the Commonwealth's team as John Calipari likes to say, is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
"We're back," senior forward Josh Harrellson said.
It missed you, Kentucky.
Long has the UK program been the standard in college basketball. As the sport's all-time winningest program and holder of seven national titles, excellence is demanded of the Kentucky basketball team and Final Fours are expected.
It's an annual tradition for the Kentucky basketball players, no matter how highly touted or undervalued they are, to take on both the honor and burden of trying to return to college basketball's greatest stage ever year.
In the 1990s, it seemed like a formality UK would be there every year. The program made it to the national semifinals four times in the '90s, including three straight from 1996-98.
Kentucky hadn't returned since and wasn't expected to again this year.
This was supposed to be the bridge year between two great teams -- last year's fabulous freshman team of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe and next year's unprecedented signing class.
"I think we had the most talented team in the NCAA by far last year, position by position" Harrellson said. "This year, I just think we play with more passion and more heart than we did last year."
Rebuilding isn't all that acceptable in the Kentucky program, but it appeared this season was exactly that when UK started to stumble through Southeastern Conference play in January and February and lost four of seven games. When Kentucky dropped a game at Arkansas in mid-February, surely nobody thought an NCAA Tournament run was possible, much less a run to the Final Four.
And yet here they are. The Unexpectables? Yeah, you could call them that.
"We knew we were special, we knew we were talented," sophomore reserve Jon Hood said. "We just had to get it on the right path. We had to complete games down the stretch. Once we did it, started doing it in the SEC Tournament, we knew we could do it."
Hood, a Kentucky native, knows a thing or two about the importance of the basketball team in the state of Kentucky. Growing up on the gravel driveways of Madisonville, Ky., hoisting shots on rickety rims while he watched players like Antoine Walker and Tony Delk cut down the nets in the '90s, he knows that, as the lifeblood of the Commonwealth, the heartbeat of the state beats a little softer, a little slower when the Wildcats aren't at the top of college basketball.
As Final Four chance after Final Four chance eluded the program -- in 1999 against Michigan State, in 2003 versus Marquette, in 2005 against Michigan State and again last year versus West Virginia -- it looked as though Kentucky's grip on the college basketball world was slipping.
Remember, two years ago, before Kentucky hired the program's savior, Calipari, this team was in the NIT. No disrespect, but the National freakin' Invitation Tournament!!!
"We went to the NIT and we are here now and back in the Final Four," said Harrellson, an All-East Regional performer. "We got Kentucky back."
Back where it belongs.
"It means a lot to me, especially being a part of this program," said Darius Miller, another Kentucky native, who was 8 years old the last time UK was in the Final Four. "I grew up in Kentucky, so I know what it means to the state of Kentucky. I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Emotions sank in everywhere in the closing seconds at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. A far less entertaining team than last year's group of rascals, and by far a much more reserved group, the team let loose in the final seconds.
Calipari kissed the sweaty forehead of DeAndre Liggins. The players embraced at the free-throw line. Stacey Poole, as always, jumped, hooted and hollered.
When the buzzer sounded, the dancing began on the court and continued onto the stage. T-shirts waved, Big Blue chants roared and Miller headed to the stands to hug his father. Even the great salesman of Kentucky basketball, Calipari, was left speechless when a reporter pointed out that you're either going to the Final Four a year early or a Final Four too late.
In Lexington, pictures and video surfaced on the web as fans stormed the streets of Limestone and Maxwell.
"Man," Miller said, "we know they're going crazy back home."
They were. Thousands of fans greeted the fans as the Wildcats got off the plane at Blue Grass Airport and Josh Harrellson climbed some airline equipment to hoist the East Regional trophy
The fans have lived, they've died and they've waited a long time for this. The Kentucky players have waited an even longer time to return to the ladder and snip a piece of that nylon.
Liggins, donned with an East Regional championship hat, made his way up the ladder in the postgame to get himself a piece. Sure, he's done it a few times for the SEC championship, but that's not what the Kentucky program is measured by, what it's about.
"This is what matters," Liggins said.
The pride of Kentucky has returned.