Mark Story: State shone during NCAA Tournament

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 6, 2012 

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At the end of Monday night's NCAA men's basketball championship, CBS needed to make a change to the tourney-ending montage it always plays to the syrupy One Shining Moment:

With apologies to our friends in Ohio (with their four sweet 16 teams), CBS should have dedicated its finale exclusively to the state of Kentucky. From the initial game of the First Four to the last game of the Final Four, this was the greatest NCAA Tournament ever for the commonwealth.

Four Bluegrass State teams — Kentucky, Louisville, Murray State and Western Kentucky — made the tourney.

Four Bluegrass State teams logged tourney wins.

Two Bluegrass State teams — Kentucky and Louisville — made the Final Four.

One Bluegrass State team, UK, cut down the nets.

A Kentucky school was the story of the tourney's first game. The president of the United States hauled a guest, the prime minister of Great Britain, to Dayton, Ohio, to get a slice of Americana.

Western served up a heaping helping of March Madness for Barack Obama and David Cameron, rallying from 53-37 down with 4:51 left in the game to claim a 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State.

Three Kentucky teams — UK, Murray and WKU — got to play tourney games in Kentucky in Louisville's glittering KFC Yum Center.

Three Kentucky teams — UK vs. Western, UK vs. Louisville — got to play each other in the course of the tournament. Kentucky schools were the dominant story of the tourney's final Saturday.

For the second time ever and first time since 1975, Kentucky and Louisville advanced to the Final Four in the same season. For the first time ever, the two played each other on college basketball's grandest stage.

A Kentucky school was the story of the tourney's final game, with our state's most popular team, UK, claiming its eighth NCAA title.

Along the way, there were moments that should long live in the rich narrative that is Kentucky college basketball history.

There were the WKU players sneaking early-in-the-game peeks to see how Obama was reacting to the action that Tuesday night in Dayton.

In Louisville, there were UK fans filling the arena of their school's intrastate archrival with chants of "Go Big Blue!"

There was Murray State forward Ed Daniel and his throw-back, 1970s-style Afro haircut, UK's Anthony Davis and his now nationally famous unibrow and the U of L players decked out in those gaudy infrared uniforms.

Those of us fortunate enough to be in New Orleans for the first UK-U of L Final Four meeting ever will long remember Bourbon Street on the Friday night before the game. It was dominated by Kentuckians.

Those in Wildcat blue and the almost equal number in Cardinals red engaged in fierce and competing bouts of yelling and spelling.

C-A-R-D-S!

C-A-T-S!

Nor will anyone ever forget the atmosphere inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday in the moments leading to Cats-Cards, the air all but throbbing with electricity.

By Monday night at the championship game, as UK vied to win our state's first men's hoops national title in 14 years against Kansas, Joe B. Hall and Denny Crum were sitting next to each other on the front row. Down the same row sat Tubby Smith.

Three coaches that brought a combined four NCAA championships to our state watching as the next one was claimed.

The 2012 tournament ended with John Calipari and Kentucky proving that the coach's one-and-done era "all-star teams" could win a national title.

A season that ends with a loss to Kentucky is going to be painful for U of L, but after two straight round of 64 exits, Rick Pitino and the Cardinals showed the coach still has some Final Four magic.

Murray State was disappointed that the best season in school history did not yield MSU's first-ever trip to the round of 16, but the Racers showed big-time mettle in a zealously competed loss to Marquette in the round of 32.

After a tumultuous couple of seasons, WKU's late-season charge under new head coach Ray Harper left bright hopes for the future on the Hill (though the word Thursday that standout freshman Derrick Gordon is transferring dulls that luster a bit).

This was the 74th men's NCAA Tournament. Even after they've played 474 more, it's hard to imagine one exceeding the 2012 tourney as the state of Kentucky's one shining moment.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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