NEW ORLEANS — Darius Miller wore a smile almost as wide as his wingspan.
The remnants of the basketball net hung from his neck like a Hawaiian lei.
The national championship was special to every player on the Kentucky roster, but it probably meant the most to Miller.
Miller was born in Kentucky.
He wore the No. 1 jersey as Mr. Basketball in 2008. He lofted above his head a Sweet Sixteen championship trophy for Mason County High School the same year.
And now there was Miller with the net around his neck, clinging to the NCAA Tournament title trophy with both hands.
Only one other player, Louisville's Darrell Griffith, has been Kentucky's Mr. Basketball and won a state title and an NCAA championship.
"It doesn't feel real," Miller confessed afterward.
That's a distant feeling from the one he had as a freshman playing for former UK Coach Billy Gillispie. It's a far-off feeling from competing in the National Invitation Tournament as a freshman.
"It's been a long journey," Miller said. "I didn't even think this was possible after my first year."
But as Miller points out, it turned around pretty quickly as Coach John Calipari arrived on campus and recruited tons of talent around Miller, who's had 40 different teammates in his four seasons. Miller had to find his role with each new season.
This year that role was mostly as sixth man on a team of stars and future first-round NBA Draft picks.
In UK's tournament run, Miller averaged 11.7 points and broke Wayne Turner's school record for games played with 152.
"I'm blessed to be a part of something like this, especially with these guys," Miller said after cutting down the final pieces of his net necklace.
His five points in the championship game Monday night helped him finish with 1,248 career points, 34th on UK's all-time scoring list.
"All the hard work that we put in this year (and) the sacrifices that people have made on this team means a lot, especially with these guys. We've grown as brothers. We've had a lot of fun with this. I can't really put into words how it feels."
As the UK players left the court and journeyed up into the stands to the embraces of their moms and dads, siblings and friends, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart focused on Miller, the kid from Maysville who had been through so much in just four short years and that "smile he had on his face."
"Quite a journey," Barnhart said. "I'm happy for him."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog:ukfootball.bloginky.com, ukwomen.bloginky.com