Fans were invited to come to Memorial Coliseum on Sunday evening to help the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate their first regular-season Southeastern Conference championship in three decades and they came out in force.
The UK women's basketball team drove directly from the airport upon arriving home from Starkville, Miss., where the Wildcats clinched that title outright with a dominant 76-40 victory over Mississippi State. Upon seeing the assembled crowd, head coach Matthew Mitchell couldn't help but smile.
"I am really just overwhelmed with the support you've shown," Matthew Mitchell told the crowd. "I can't thank you enough. This is unbelievable to have you all out here."
Of course, the celebration was tipped off by the title and centered around it, but to say it was the only thing being commemorated would be untrue. The scene was a chance for players, coaches and fans to recognize what UK Hoops has become.
UK Hoops has arrived as a force to be reckoned with in the women's college basketball landscape, and it all begins with the players.
"This championship started when all these young women decided that Kentucky was a place they were going to come play," Mitchell said. "It started last summer when they were up at 5:30 a.m. lifting weights and running. It started in individual workouts in September where they just didn't even think they could go another step.
"They just worked as hard as any group I've ever seen."
The festivities gave those players a chance to take the floor one more time in Memorial to the cheers of the fans that have so embraced them and their style of play. Feeding off that crowd, Kentucky was a perfect 18-0 in Lexington.
"You, the fans, had a huge part in this championship, a huge part of this championship," Mitchell said. "There was only one team in the conference that went undefeated on their home floor and that was Kentucky.
"This has become the toughest place in the country to play and this is how we need to keep it."
Before Mitchell arrived at UK as an assistant to Mickie DeMoss in 2003, a night like this one would have been unthinkable. The hard work of the players, the support of the fans and an administration unwavering in its belief that championships could be won at UK turned that all around.
"We're just so fortunate to be here at a place where our administration decided that women's basketball is important," Mitchell said. "We go on the road so many times and there's not this many people at games."
Leading that administration is Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, who opened the evenings events with a few brief comments and an introduction of Mitchell. The crowd cheered when appropriate, but was quiet while he spoke, save for one instance. "We're not done yet!" a fan shouted, Barnhart and everyone in the building agreed.
Barnhart went on to explain the players would be receiving rings for winning the SEC title, but made it clear that it's in their hands to determine if anything will be added to them.
"I will also tell you those rings have two sides on them," Barnhart said. "One has got your name and number and all those wonderful things. On the other side of the ring, from here on, you get to decide what the other side of that ring says."