Kentucky fans despondent after loss to Connecticut; couch fires reported on State Street

Herald-Leader StaffApril 7, 2014 

Update Tuesday morning | The totals from Monday night: 19 couch fires, several small trash fires, 31 arrests, 23 injuries, mostly minor, mayor's office said.

Earlier story:

As the final seconds ticked down, people watching the University of Kentucky and University of Connecticut game in the Kentucky Theatre clutched their seats. Some had their heads buried into their hands as the Wildcats trailed the Huskies in Monday night's NCAA championship game.

The theater grew quiet after the clock expired, sealing UK's 60-54 loss.

"It was a good run being that they weren't supposed to be there. ... It's hard to see a team lose like that," UK freshman Austyn Holderfield said.

Fans took the loss hard. Some cried. Others hugged.

People looked despondent on South Limestone, and many turned for home in the face of cold winds and drizzling rain.

"We're disappointed with the loss to UConn, but we're proud of our guys," said Kelly Sanders, a UK sophomore.

The crowds in the bars in the Limestone area left quietly. Crews were brought in to use street sweepers to begin cleaning up debris.

However, crowds on State Street continued to grow after the game ended. City officials said there were 17 couch fires in the State Street area and 14 injuries just after midnight, including one person who was hit by a train on the tracks behind the State Street neighborhood. There were reports of fights and other disorders, bottles being thrown, fireworks and other mischief. Police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said officers used "pepper balls," which release a substance similar to pepper spray, to control the crowd. Six people were arrested by 1:30 a.m., a city spokeswoman reported.

Earlier in the night, spirits were higher and more positive.

Wildcat fans braved wind and rain to cheer on their team.

It was shoulder to shoulder inside The Tin Roof on South Limestone, and hundreds of fans huddled outside under a tent in the fenced-in parking lot.

The ground near nine portable toilets was littered with empty beer cans before the game began.

"I'm pretty sure every game it gets more crazy," UK senior Jordan Hardy said.

Hardy said he had skipped class Monday, but as for Tuesday, "Tomorrow's going to be a long day."

As the game got underway, damp-haired fans huddled on the sidewalk outside Two Keys Tavern to get a view of televisions on the patio.

"It's one in and one out," said Shelby Jessee, a senior at Eastern Kentucky University who had managed to get inside. "To get to the bar it's like a 15- to 20-minute wait."

Jessee said she expected a wild celebration, whether UK won or lost.

State Street was rather quiet before the game. A house at Elizabeth and State streets has been a prime gathering place for fans throughout the tournament, but it was empty during the game. The house has been a police command post since the game against Louisville. On Saturday, police made people leave after bottles were thrown at officers.

University Avenue was different. Fans there were playing catch, jumping on a trampoline and bobbing their heads to Ludacris' What's Your Fantasy.

Traffic was packed on Waller Avenue, and Crescent Avenue seemed to be the hot spot.

But the overall subdued nature of State Street didn't bother Travis Waters, who chanted "Cats! Cats! Cats!" from his front porch.

"We're hyped," said Waters, 20. "We are true fans. We're about to get turned up."

When asked whether the rain stopped possible celebrations, he said, "we're about to tear the roof off this place."

Other parts of the city

As for downtown Lexington, fans were being turned away at the door at The Kentucky Theatre five minutes after the game started.

The 400-seat downtown theater was standing-room only.

"One girl was here at 5 p.m," said Fred Mills, manager of The Kentucky .

People had to get tickets, but the broadcast was free. Mills said that because the main theater was being renovated, they decided to open the smaller State Theater.

"We knew no one was going to come to the movies tonight," Mills said.

The packed theater had a mix of people — from high school and college students to parents with kids and older fans.

"I saw a man who was probably in his 80s trying to find a seat. And another man stood up to help him," Mills said. "It really does bring people together."

Just a few blocks west, at New Life Day Center on Martin Luther King Boulevard, more than 50 people at the center for the homeless ate free pizza, drank soda and watched the game on the center's big-screen television.

Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the Catholic Action Center and the Community Inn, organized the viewing party at New Life for the city's homeless population.

"C-A-T-S. CATS! CATS! CATS!," Ramsey cheered as the pregame show began.

Rodney Lee needed little encouragement to join in. Lee is a lifelong Fayette County resident and a UK fan. He wore a UK T-shirt, sweatshirt and had a UK tattoo on his cheek.

He loves the Cats so much, they affect his sleep patterns.

"After the Wisconsin game, I couldn't sleep all night," said Lee, who volunteers at the center three days a week.

Mario Allen moved to Lexington four years ago. The Silver Springs, Md., native said he has caught Cat fever.

"It's my favorite team and my favorite color," Allen said. "If you ain't with UK, you got to go!"

Ramsey said she organized the event because there were few places for homeless people to view the game. New Life Day Center had a large enough room and a big enough television for everyone to gather, she said.

"It gives them something to look forward to," Ramsey said.

Around the Cheapside area of downtown, the bars and restaurants were full but calm as the game began.

Preparing for the crowds

As University of Kentucky Police Chief Joe Monroe said, the reaction always depends on what kind of game Kentucky plays. In his opinion, a blowout game is better than a tight score.

"With a close game, emotions are running high. Afterwards, people are trying to defuse that excitement," he said.

And if they lose, of course, "it could erupt into something negative."

Nonetheless, the police were out in force.

Lexington police used their largest deployment of officers ever to monitor and ensure safety during Monday night's anticipated fan activities, Chief Ronnie Bastin said at a news conference.

Bastin wouldn't specify the number of uniformed officers on duty.

"We will be adding some additional staffing over what we had Saturday evening," he said. "The crowd, at least on State Street, was larger Saturday evening than it was for the final game in 2012.

"We are going to be working with Kentucky State Police," Bastin said. "They will be deployed at the Limestone and Maxwell area. So they are going to take an entire venue for us, which will allow us to free up officers to work some of the other areas we have to cover.

The larger crowd Saturday might have been because of relatively good weather and because the lower-seeded Wildcats had not been expected to advance to the championship game against the Huskies.

Police made 21 arrests Saturday. Fire crews dealt with 80 fires.

Asked whether he was praying for rain to keep crowds down, Bastin said: "I'm praying for a win. If we can be lucky enough to get a win and rain, that would be awfully good."

Bastin didn't have estimates on the cost for the police preparations.

"In 2012, we had conserved overtime funding as a contingency for a large-scale event, either an ice storm or NCAA appearance," he said. "We didn't have the ice storm, but we did have the NCAA appearance. So we didn't have to request any additional funding. We were able to absorb that event. We've been very conservative this year. We have reserve funds set aside for this. ... I suspect we will not have to ask for additional funding for the division of police."

Bastin said it appeared that a higher proportion of those who were arrested "are not students. That was the case in 2012, too. A lot of folks were from out of town and had come into town to party and celebrate.

"I guess the message to that would be: If you are coming into town to celebrate, we hold you accountable for what you do. We do have a lot of intelligence-gathering capability within the crowds, with both still photos and video. And even though you may leave or go back home after the event, that doesn't mean we won't be knocking on your door two or three days from now."

Bastin said bad behavior "has been the exception not the rule."

"But it's still a reality we're prepared to handle," he said.

The cold wind drove many people home, but by 12:45 a.m. Tuesday, more than 60 fans had camped outside Rupp Arena in hopes of getting tickets to Tuesday's celebration to welcome the team home.

Jason Johns of Winchester said he was going to come no matter the outcome of Monday night's game.

"We were expecting them to win, but we were happy with the way they played," Johns said. "This is our way of showing our appreciation."

The Buchanan family of Corbin had plenty of blankets as they sat on the concrete several places behind Johns.

Sarah Buchanan, 11, cried after UK's loss Monday. She thought maybe her parents, LeAnn and Paul Buchanan, wouldn't want to camp out.

She was wrong.

When asked why she felt so strongly about the Cats, her answer was simple: "UK is just the best team in the whole world."

Herald-Leader reporter Greg Kocher contributed to this story. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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