HOUSTON — During the 1998 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky fan Claudia Blaylock got so discouraged when UK fell 17 points behind Duke during the second half of the Elite Eight, she quit watching and started doing her family laundry.
Which was the exact point when UK launched a historic comeback for victory. Ever since, Claudia hits the laundry room when Kentucky basketball teams need help.
For 13 long, barren years, the washer and dryer in Blaylock's Lexington home have sat silent on Final Four Saturday.
In Frankfort, Joyce Sturgill has had no reason to light a candle for the Wildcats, as she does for good luck during every UK game, in any national semifinal since Tubby Smith's first season as Kentucky coach.
In Maysville, the plastic bucket Jim Scaggs sits on during every Kentucky Wildcats games — now a good-luck custom that started when he lived in a house with a massive living room and a small TV and needed to get closer to see the game — has gone unoccupied on the final weekend of every men's college hoops season since 1998.
"It's just not a Final Four without Kentucky," says Jill Scaggs, Jim's wife.
On Saturday, UK at long last returns to college basketball's biggest stage. A fan base that feels its team's successes and failures as deeply as any in American team sport is about to burst with anticipation.
After all, it feels as if the Cats haven't played in a Final Four since the Paleozoic Era.
Oh the torture The Kingdom of the Blue endured.
Once (the mid-1990s), the Kingdom reaped an untold bounty. From 1993 through 1998, Kentucky made four Final Four trips, played in three title games, twice claimed the national crown.
"We had such a great run there in the 1990s, I think we got kind of spoiled," says Will McCabe, who boasts a well-decked out "UK room" in his home in Union. "It seemed like we were there every year. And then it just stopped."
Four times in 12 years UK moved within one victory of the Final Four, yet various plagues kept getting in the way. In 1999 it was a better Michigan State team; in 2003, Dwyane Wade; 2005 brought a horrifying failure (again, against the Men of Izzo) to get a game-clinching defensive rebound in overtime; and 2010 brought both Mazzulla and 4-for-32.
For most of this season, no one thought 2011 would bring an end to the drought. Then on one magical week in the garden of Newark, a largely unheralded Kentucky team felled the beasts Ohio State and North Carolina and regained entry to the promised land.
Now, The Kingdom all but pulses with renewed vibrancy.
A pair of (fairly) recent UK graduates, Erika Hawley and Jenny Benjamin, hopped in their car in Louisville on Thursday and headed southwest. Some 13 hours later, they were in a "skanky motel," in Marshall, Texas, for three hours of sleep.
Then it was up and on to Houston for Friday's UK open practice. As of early Friday afternoon, the duo didn't yet have Final Four tickets.
"If we don't get them, we'll watch in a bar," Hawley said. "We just had to be here."
On the other side of Reliant Stadium, Belfry High School student Jacob Staggs was decked out in a blue T-shirt that said Momma, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cardinals.
Staggs, 15, is part of a mixed family. He's a Cat man. Many of his relatives are West Virginia backers. A year ago, when John Wall and Co. went down against Bob Huggins in the round of eight, Staggs cried.
This season, when West Virginia went up on the Cats by eight points at halftime in the NCAA round of 32, "Jacob went in his room, slammed the door and wouldn't come out," says Eddie Russell, Jacob's stepfather. "I promised him if Kentucky came back, beat West Virginia and went to the Final Four, I'd bring him here."
The Cats got here, and so did Jacob.
"It means everything," Jacob said.
West Virginia broke the heart of Bowling Green's Amir Dadbin in 2010, too. He purchased Final Four tickets after the round of 16, fully intending to see UK Blue in Indianapolis. When the Cats went out, Dadbin, 30, went on anyway.
"I cried. I'm not kidding," he said. "Too many West Virginia fans."
Friday, he was back at the Final Four decked out in a vintage Rex Chapman No. 3 Kentucky jersey. "I did random acts of kindness. I think I willed the Cats here," Dadbin said.
"I work at Outback (Steakhouse), I comped some free (bloomin') onions," he said.
Back in Kentucky, the prospect of a Saturday with the Cats once again playing on the last weekend of the college basketball season was no less exhilarating.
In Union, McCabe says he expects a group of 10-15 Cats fans to be watching Saturday's tilt with Connecticut in the "UK room."
Over in Frankfort, Sturgill, 73, says she and a group of friends that refer to themselves as "the Wildcat Girls" plan to watch the Final Four together. For the first time in 13 years, Sturgill will light her Cats candle for a national semifinal game.
Up in Maysville, Jim Scaggs will watch the Cats in the Final Four on the specially painted UK blue bucket his wife gave him to sit upon for all Kentucky games.
And in Lexington, for the first time since Bill Clinton lived in the White House, Blaylock promises her laundry room will be firing like a U.S. Steel plant during the Final Four.
"I will be doing laundry throughout the game," she says.
The Cats are back in the Final Four. For The Kingdom of the Blue, at long last, all is again right in the world.
Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or firstname.lastname@example.org.