LEXINGTON, Ky. - Rupp Arena was an excitable sea of blue Tuesday as the University of Kentucky men's basketball team came home to Lexington as the 2012 NCAA National Champions.
"Do you want to know why we won," asked UK Basketball Coach John Calipari. "We won because we had better players and we had a better team!" He emphasized the word "team."
That proclamation set off a boisterous standing ovation from the 18,000 assembled Big Blue fans that was both long and extremely loud.
UK defeated Kansas 67-59 Monday night in New Orleans to win its eighth NCAA championship. Only UCLA has more titles with 11. The Wildcats finished the season 38-2, the best record in NCAA history. The only losses were to Indiana on Dec.10 last year and to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament last month.
Fans began camping out at Rupp Arena minutes after the game ended Monday night to be in line for free celebration tickets when distribution began at 8 a.m. Tuesday. All the tickets were gone by noon. People were allowed into the arena at 2 p.m.
Three generations of the Steele family traveled from Falmouth to Lexington for the homecoming. They included Donald Steele, his son, John, and John's children, Madison and Blake.
"I have season tickets and I wouldn't have missed this," said Donald. "The team did exactly what it had to do to win. It was exciting."
By three o'clock most of the seats were filled and fans watched a replay of the Kentucky/Kansas game on huge video monitors located high above the Rupp Arena floor.
They also cheered live pictures of the Wildcats' team bus winding its way through the streets of Lexington from Bluegrass Airport to the center of the city.
Among the supporters were Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, both UK graduates. They were in New Orleans for the game. The Governor declared Tuesday Kentucky Wildcats Day in the Commonwealth.
"It was an exciting game," Beshear said. "It was great to see Kentucky win the national championship, but it was also great to see Kentucky on such a positive, national stage."
Jane Beshear said she got a little nervous when Kansas stormed back to cut the Kentucky lead to five with six minutes left in the game.
"I knew then would win," she added.
At precisely 4 p.m. a metal garage door at one end of the area began to rise slowly revealing a Lexington Police cruiser with its lights flashing and its siren sounding.
Right behind it was the team bus, which drove right onto the floor. The players were introduced one-by-one.
The sound from the crowd was deafening when freshman Anthony Davis emerged, put both arms in the air and gave the "V" for victory sign with both hands. He was named the National Player of the Year in the NCAA.
The roar increased when senior Darius Miller hit the floor with the championship trophy in his hands and a basketball net draped around his neck.
However, the loudest ovation came when Coach John Calipari came down the stairs of the bus and pushed his fist into the air, while looking toward every corner of the arena.
Calipari has been widely praised for molding a young squad into an unselfish team. The normal starting lineup was three freshman and two sophomores. It's possible that Davis and five of his teammates could be NBA draft picks.
"These players gave up points and minutes to play as a team," said Calipari. "They were unselfish."
Particular praise went to Miller, the Maysville native who was a three-year starter for the Wildcats until this year, when he came off the bench more than he was in the starting lineup.
"He's ready for a pro career," said Calipari. "And, he will graduate."
Miller was the only player to speak to the crowd, thanking supporters for their continued enthusiasm throughout the entire season.
"I feel blessed," he said.
The 30 minute celebration ended with the new championship banner being slowly unfurled from the Rupp Arena rafters.
Now, it's only six months until the 2012-2013 college basketball season begins on Oct. 15.
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