First it was "Ner-LENS, Ner-LENS!" in honor of Kentucky's fallen star. Chants continued with "ARCH-ie GOOD-win!" and "AL-ex POY-thress!" among others, until it was Julius Mays' turn.
"Un-cle MAYS," fans screamed in unison, drawing smiles from Mays and the Cats
The "uncle" moniker is obviously plays on the fact that Mays, at 23 years old, is a good two years older than any other UK rotation player and as many as five years older than some of his freshman teammates. But it's just as much about the steady veteran presence Mays provides on the floor. And, as it turns out, the chant turned out to be a pretty good predictor of what would happen at the UK-Missouri main event 10 hours later.
After a first half during which he scored just three points on 1-of-3 shooting and his team fell behind by as many as 13 points, Mays was there down the stretch to take every big shot, to make every big play. Over the final 3:37 of regulation, he scored five of UK's eight points to allow the Cats to survive a Missouri rally and reach overtime, even assisting on Willie Cauley-Stein's game-tying layup with a little more than 41 seconds left.
In the extra session, Mays scored eight of his season-high 24 points to propel the Cats to a 90-83 win over the visiting Tigers in front of a game-changing crowd of 24,380 on Saturday. He hit all six of his free throws in overtime, overcoming cramps that were completely understandable in light of the fact that he played 44 of a possible 45 minutes.
"Julius was terrific, the shots he made and the leadership," John Calipari said.
Mays' team-high scoring output, six rebounds and three assists were big, but - as Coach Cal suggests - his presence was just as important, as it has been all season.
If you had to assign familial roles to each member of this UK team, Calipari is clearly the strong father figure. He loves unconditionally, but often has to come down hard on a young group of players. That's where Mays' uncle role comes in, though it's probably more appropriate to call him a big-brother type. He's able to understand the perspectives of both his coach and his teammates and serve as an arbiter of sorts.
"Julius, there's not another person like Julius," said Archie Goodwin, who scored all 18 of his points after halftime. "He's a great leader and he's a great big brother to me, like my best friend. He's just always there for encouragement."
Mays does more than just encourage though.
As an example, there was one point late in the game when Ryan Harrow allowed the man he was guarding to turn down a pick-and-roll. It was a crucial mistake and Mays saw that Calipari was about to tell his sophomore point guard about it. Mays, however, was able to recognize Harrow's mistake and foresee how the interaction between his teammate and his coach would go, so he spoke up.
"I knew what (Calipari) was about to tell (Harrow), so I just stopped him ahead of time and told him that I got him," Mays said. "Plus, it was a crucial point in the game and I didn't want Ryan to get down on himself. So I figured I would talk to him instead of letting Coach."
That's exactly the kind of wisdom and maturity that earned Mays his nickname and also exactly the kind of ownership Calipari wants his players to take in their team.
"He wants us to hold each other accountable," Mays said. "Him and the coaches don't want to be the ones to have to get on us all the time. He wants us to get on each other amongst ourselves and be able to take it, the coaching from each other."
From the very beginning, Mays has had the gift of being able to offer constructive criticism to his teammates. After electing to transfer to UK for his final season of collegiate eligibility, Mays arrived on campus after his teammates but immediately bonded with them - especially Goodwin and Alex Poythress, who had 21 points and seven rebounds as the Cats picked up a resume-building win.
"From the time I got here, they accepted me like a big brother," Mays said. "We probably are the closest on the team and I always kept it real with them and I'm not going to sugarcoat anything. I don't lie, I don't tell them what they want to here because I've been around five years so I know what it takes."
Goodwin and Poythress haven't been immune to criticism this season, but they deserve credit for recognizing the value of Mays' knowledge.
"Julius is incredible," Poythress said. "We look for him on and off the court. He's always there to help with when we're in need or anything like that. We always look for him for guidance if we're in a pickle or we're just confused. He's always got the right answers."
The only time on Saturday when it would have been possible to question Mays was the final play of regulation. After the Cats pressured Phil Pressey - who led Missouri with 27 points and 10 assists - into a missed layup with less than eight seconds remaining, Mays came away with the rebound. He raced down the floor and launched a shot with time still remaining from just inside half-court. The shot narrowly missed, but Goodwin was streaking down the floor wide open and wanted the ball.
"I didn't even know how much time I had," Mays said. "When the guy jumped in front of me, I didn't see the time. I was making sure I didn't turn it over, so I saw Archie at the end."
Ultimately, Mays and UK rendered the exchange at the end of regulation nothing more than a footnote by outscoring Missouri 15-8 in overtime. As for how to react to a win many are calling the biggest of the season, the Cats need only take a cue from Uncle/Big Brother Julius.
"It's another stepping stone for us," Mays said. "Obviously it doesn't make or break our whole season. We're just taking it one game at a time and not looking ahead or looking past anyone, just living in the moment, enjoying the moment."