A happy homecoming for Kentucky's Texas trio

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 1, 2014 

Julius Randle remembers where and when he first learned that the Final Four was coming to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Junior high school. Study hall. Bored.

"Just where I wanted it to be," he said Tuesday. "It's always been my goal."

Of course, all players want to play in the Final Four. "I don't care if it's on the moon," Randle said.

It's only that much sweeter that this year's Final Four has a homecoming quality for Kentucky's three Texans: Andrew and Aaron Harrison, plus Randle.

Proximity means Randle's grandmother will see him play in the flesh for the first time this season. Annie Page, 79, hasn't seen him play all that often this season even though all Kentucky games are televised. Living in rural Texas and apt to grow quickly frustrated by cable, she gets only eight channels on her TV.

"Thank God the games were on CBS," Randle's mother, Carolyn Kyles, said of the NCAA Tournament. "Because she gets that channel."

On Thursday, Kyles plans to go to her mother's home and bring her to the Dallas area, where they plan to get a room in the UK team hotel.

"So she'll get a chance to love on him, too," Kyles said.

Love was in the air Tuesday as UK players spoke of their surprise advancement to the Final Four. Asked if he was looking forward to returning to Texas to play on college basketball's grandest stage, Andrew Harrison said, "Oh, definitely. I'll see a lot of my family that I haven't seen in a while, so that'll be fun."

When Kentucky played in AT&T Stadium, an ice storm turned the Dallas area into a skating rink. A loss to Baylor made Kentucky's return to Dallas this weekend seem unlikely.

"We wouldn't have thought this was possible," Kyles said. "Just a lot of praying and crying going on because all we had was each other. No one believed in them anymore."

Kyles reminded Randle of the late Jim Valvano's enduring advice: "Don't give up; don't ever give up."

Randle didn't. Kentucky didn't. Hence, the return to Dallas and high hopes.

"You have a do-over," Kyles said.

Randle spoke of his mother Tuesday as an inspiring presence in his life.

"Just seeing her every day get up and go to work and just struggle to take care of me and my sister," he said. "And for her to do it by herself. And for her not to have much, to make sure me and my sister had everything we needed and wanted."

But Randle corrected a reporter who suggested he played the game with his mother front and center in his mind.

"I don't think about it (on the court)," he said. "I can't. She's always telling me to enjoy being a college student and not worry about her. Not to worry about taking care of her. She doesn't want to put that kind of pressure on me. There's no need to."

Aaron Harrison acknowledged how the loss to Baylor cast doubt on this Kentucky season. "After a loss, you always have some negative thoughts," he said.

Now the twins have the enviable problem of finding enough Final Four tickets for family and friends.

"Kind of stressful," Andrew Harrison said. "But it's better than not having (requests)."

UK Coach John Calipari noted how Texas has become rich recruiting ground. The Lone Star State remains synonymous with football. At one time, football assistant coaches often coached basketball. But now "basketball junkies" coach high school teams, he said.

"Now, all of a sudden you're getting skilled players" from Texas, said Calipari, who noted how Texas is one of the country's most populous states.

The Texas trio came to Kentucky as highly regarded players. Andrew and Aaron Harrison had the necessary skills to succeed on the college level, Calipari said.

"They just had to be challenged in a lot of different ways that they never had been challenged (previously)," he said. "That was tough on them."

The Harrison brothers faced another hurdle. "They weren't here for the summer," Calipari said in reference to remaining home for several weeks last summer in order to solidify academic eligibility. "That set them back some."

As for Randle, Calipari saluted the Kyles and her son's mentor, former Oklahoma star Jeff Webster.

"He was surrounded by good people," the UK coach said, "and they all were telling him the truth."

Now, they share with the Big Blue Nation the sweetest reward college basketball offers: a place at the Final Four.

"It seems like a dream," Randle's mother said. "All the trials and tribulations we went through. Now, we're rejoicing."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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