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Warm welcome home helps put UK's memorable run in perspective

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Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a lot to ask, holding a season celebration less than 24 hours after Kentucky's magical NCAA Tournament run ended.

Emotions were still raw after the Wildcats' national championship game defeat for players and fans alike, and missed opportunities from Monday night still very much top of mind.

But on Tuesday afternoon, it should come as no surprise the Big Blue Nation came through under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Wildcats, because they know what UK fans are all about, weren't surprised, but they certainly appreciated the show of support.

"You're the best fans in the world," senior Jon Hood told the crowd at the season celebration at Rupp Arena. "You supported us all year in an up-and-down year. You came out when we were playing good; you came out when we were playing bad. You supported us the whole way."

An estimated crowd of 3,500 filled Rupp Arena to pay a deserved tribute to the Cats and the season that was. The mood may not have been as jubilant as it would have had the 60-54 score of UK's game against Connecticut been reversed, but the event and the drive from the airport to downtown served as a fitting cap to a month no one will soon forget.

After UK's team plane arrived early Tuesday afternoon, the Wildcats were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers at the airport before they piled into three buses with coaches and support staff. Flanked by a police escort, the Cats went on a circuitous path to Rupp, even stopping to say hello to a large group gathered outside Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

The rest of the route was lined by waving and cheering fans -- an incredible number wearing UK blue -- as the team buses traded honks with passing cars.

"We made this ride from the airport to the arena two years ago and I forgot how emotional it was, people lining streets of Lexington to thank this group of basketball players," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "It reminds me how deeply tied we are to this community, to our state and to our university and how much this program means to all of you and we're indebted to you for your loyalty to us."

UK fans, to say the least, have a reputation for being demanding of their beloved Wildcats. That was never clearer than this year as Kentucky saw its season go from unbeaten aspirations to an almost-assumed first-weekend exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, of course, the Cats went on that run. They upended unbeaten Wichita State. They took down rival Louisville and rode clutch performances past Michigan and Wisconsin and into the title game, though just short of a championship.

Disappointment still fresh for the Cats, the UK fans known far and wide for their championship-or-bust expectations, proved they value the heart, determination and togetherness their team showed throughout the tournament above all else.

In doing so, they may have just helped fast forward the healing process for the Cats by reminding them of exactly how special these last three weeks have been.

"I can't tell if we lost that game last night after witnessing what I am right now," Willie Cauley-Stein tweeted from the bus ride to Rupp.

John Calipari, following Barnhart in addressing the crowd from a podium erected on the Rupp floor, delivered another such reminder.

"You know these guys behind me -- because I'm going to say this from experience -- at some point they're going to be a grandfather," Calipari said. "... They're going to be a grandfather and their grandson's going to on their lap and sit on their knee and say, 'Granddad, tell me about you as a player. I heard you played.' 'Well let me tell you about my freshman year.' "

They'll have plenty to tell.

By the time Aaron Harrison is bouncing a grandchild on his knee, his three game-winners will probably have come from half-court. When Alex Poythress remembers his game-turning and-one dunk against Wisconsin, he'll probably have jumped from outside the free-throw line.

But for all the tall tales they'll tell about surviving one of the hardest roads in NCAA Tournament history, there's no way they'll be able to exaggerate the closeness that made it all possible.

"I want to thank the young men behind me who have possessed the skill, combined it with learning and listening and loving each other to create moments and memories which will last our lifetime and theirs," Barnhart said. "I want to thank you. It has been a heck of a ride and we're really, really, really proud of what you guys have done. Outstanding."

Pride, for everyone on that end-zone stage, was mixed with regret and -- maybe more than anything else -- exhaustion. Not only have the Cats played nine games in 25 days in four different cities while also managing a regular spring-semester course load, they had also had a short night of rest following the season's final game.

Tiredness, however, will fade after a couple good nights of rest. The memories, including the ones made on Tuesday in Rupp Arena and on the roads of Lexington, will not.

"While our minds and bodies -- all of us -- are tired, our hearts are still filled with love for each other and this opportunity to climb this mountain together," Calipari said. "I will tell you it's time now to reflect, celebrate and remember -- and continue to remember -- we are breaking barriers."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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2 Comments

Congratulations to our Wildcats! They are terrific. All of us just like these young men are disappointed in the loss, but so pleased to have each one of them as a part of the UK community. Your accomplishments speak for themselves. So hold you heads high. My thanks to Coach and his staff as well. It is my wish, that all will stay at UK for as long as possible.

I completely with the person's comment above. So proud of all the young men and their accomplishments. They have everything to be proud of them as all the BBN is proud of them. Love you guys!!

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  • Sandy Spears: I completely with the person's comment above. So proud of all the young men and their accomplishments. They have everything read more
  • chattyone: Congratulations to our Wildcats! They are terrific. All of us just like these young men are disappointed in the loss, read more