Fans enjoy hoops feast as Rupp hosts UK men and Sweet Sixteen on same day for first time

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 9, 2013 

Fans crowded the escalators at Lexington Center on Saturday afternoon. It was what one writer called "a quintessential Kentucky day," with UK playing in Rupp Arena the same day as the Sweet Sixteen.

MATT GOINS — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

An hour before the University of Kentucky tipped off against Florida on Saturday, Donnie Hacker's big basketball weekend got even better.

He had been in town since Wednesday for the boys' Sweet Sixteen high school basketball tournament, and he wanted to catch the Cats, Lexington's toughest ticket.

"I got two tickets, face value of $40, for $20 each," the Manchester resident said after the Cats upset the Gators 61-57 in Rupp Arena.

And his day of basketball wasn't even half over.

For the first time, UK and the boys' Sweet Sixteen were played on the same day, the high school semifinals set to start just five hours after the Cats' final buzzer.

"It's a quintessential Kentucky day," said author Keith O'Brien, whose new book Outside Shot chronicles the Scott County High School team's 2009-10 season which culminated in a loss to Louisville's Ballard in the championship game. "It's UK basketball followed by arguably the best high school basketball tournament in the country."

Carrol Bell of Owensboro and Jerry Dixon of Beaver Dam found it to be an irresistible proposition and picked up Sweet Sixteen tickets after going to the UK game.

"We've seen some great basketball, and now we want to see some good basketball," Bell said, allowing greatness was possible from the boys.

Lexington Center CEO Bill Owen said Rupp personnel had only a few hours to switch the arena from UK to a tournament setting, including collapsing the E-Rupp-tion Zone student seats, adding decals to the tournament floor and reconfiguring courtside seating.

Owen estimated the UK game would draw about 23,000 fans and the Sweet Sixteen would draw 16,000 to 18,000.

Many Sweet Sixteen fans said they wanted to go to the UK game, but they weren't as lucky as Hacker.

"We tried to get tickets, but they were too expensive," said Eli Florer, 17, who watched the final seconds of the game tick away on a giant TV screen just outside the arena with some buddies from Bracken County.

Despite being the District 5 boys' basketball coach of the year, Artie Braden and his wife, Kathy, couldn't get tickets, but they still made a day of it by watching the UK game at Yesterday's Restaurant in Lexington Center.

"We love coming here," said Braden, who coaches Bethlehem High School. "Having a UK game in the middle just makes it better."

The big basketball day was good for a number of downtown eateries.

During a rare lull on Saturday, Jim Sawyer of Sawyer's said, "We do about half an entire UK season in volume on Sweet Sixteen weekends."

Not all businesses do well, however.

Ron Williams, who owns four shops in Victorian Square, including the Only in Kentucky gift shop and Sweet Spot ice cream shop, said neither UK nor Sweet Sixteen fans come in much, and inflated game-day parking prices in the area blunt regular shopping traffic.

"If you're selling beer and food, you're doing great," Williams said, noting that UK souvenir sales had been down during UK's spotty season.

UK's last home game of the season gave Rupp guest services workers Veronica Holder and Will Hopkins "mixed feelings," Holder said while taking a break after the UK game. "We've been seeing these guys since November, and now, no more UK games until next season."

With the Sweet Sixteen semis in just a few hours, she wasn't going to have long to think about that.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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