Kentucky basketball team returns to celebration in Rupp Arena

lblackford@herald-leader.com and gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 8, 2014 

When Tobi Florence checked her two sons out of Woodford County High School at midday Tuesday, she wasn't surprised to see a long list of students leaving for the same place: Rupp Arena.

"We just love them," Florence said of this year's University of Kentucky men's basketball players, who returned from Texas on Tuesday for a celebration at Rupp Arena after Monday's loss to the University of Connecticut in the final game of the NCAA Tournament. "We think they're fun. It's a good family day to come out and welcome them and spend some time together."

The team returned without the championship trophy, but the players were big heroes anyway to the 3,500 fans who filled Rupp's lower arena to welcome them back.

Jodie Brock brought two of her grandchildren.

"We're so proud of them," she said. "We never dreamed they'd get this far."

Brock's family lives in Wilmore and loves Wildcats Jared Polson and Willie Cauley-Stein, who visited one of their cousins in the hospital.

"And the Harrison twins," piped in granddaughter Maddie Lunsford.

The team got to Rupp about 2:30 p.m. and climbed out of the bus looking tired and sad, but the screaming, clapping and standing ovations from the stands seemed to perk up the players a bit.

That's why Cody Ballard, 19, came. He calls himself a true UK fan, not a bandwagon fan who likes the team only when it wins it all.

"I wanted to support them whether they won or lost," he said. "It hurt they didn't win it all, but it was nice they made it as far as they did, especially with everyone doubting them."

A couple hundred fans greeted the team when its plane landed at Blue Grass Airport shortly before 2 p.m. The players and their entourage then boarded three Blue Grass Tours buses for Rupp Arena.

Before leaving the airport, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young and other members of the team briefly got out of a bus to greet some fans.

David Wilson, 49, of Lexington arrived at the airport 21/2 hours before the team arrived.

"I wanted to show these guys that they're the best," Wilson said. "You've got to show support for these guys. Other teams, they don't compare. I was here in 1998 and I was here in 2012."

Mindy Maxey, 38, of Lexington hurt her right ankle Monday morning, but that wasn't going to keep her from welcoming the Cats home. She hobbled on crutches to the designated place for fans outside the airport tarmac.

"I think they deserve a welcome home even though they lost last night," Maxey said. "They can't hang their heads in shame for anything. They made it this far, and nobody thought that they would."

Dawn Caldwell, 53, of Lawrenceburg and her friend Sarah Spillman of Frankfort, who turned 54 Tuesday, both said they weren't disappointed.

"They're still champions to me no matter what they do," Caldwell said. "I think they played their hearts out."

Spillman said she thought the much-ballyhooed "tweak" by Coach John Calipari to motivate the team was this: "It was just saying, 'Do you want this? This is how far we're going to go.'"

The team got off the bus at Rupp and formed a semicircle onstage while Calipari thanked the fans and players. Senior Jon Hood got a big round of applause when he said, "I know Coach says this a lot, but y'all really are crazy."

Mark Mellinger couldn't agree more, but he said the Cats deserved adulation, even if it sometimes seemed unhinged.

"They exceeded all expectations," he said. "We didn't win the title, but this may be the most memorable, rewarding two weeks I can remember."

Star Smith, Angela Vickers and Ida Burton were proud to call themselves crazy Cats fans. They drove from Covington to Lexington on Monday night to watch the game, then camped out at Rupp Arena on a cold, windy night for the free tickets to the celebration. The trio then went to the back parking lot to film and wave at the bus cavalcade as it took the players to Wildcat Lodge. They sent them off by shouting, "One more year!"

"You can't get enough of the Cats," Vickers said.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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