Kentucky team lauded in Rupp for creating 'great memories'

jsmith3@herald-leader.comApril 8, 2014 

Kentucky's players did their best to smile through the disappointment.

Tired and hurting, fresh off a loss in the NCAA Tournament championship game, the players stepped off their bus parked just inside Rupp Arena and waved to the adoring crowd Tuesday.

Willie Cauley-Stein, in a much quieter shirt than the one he wore for the title game, raised his right arm to his forehead and saluted the crowd as his name was called.

Julius Randle waved and smiled for a few moments.

Chairs facing the newly hung "2014 NCAA runner-up" banner hanging in the rafters, the players sat on the stage in a semi-circle around their head coach as he stood at the podium.

"I usually do these things off the cuff, but I'm so tired right now that I have notes," John Calipari said.

He looked around at the screaming crowd of about 3,500 and grinned.

"I want to thank all of you here who believed in this team and inspired us," he said. "But I have to tell you, I also have to thank all of the people that didn't, because you motivated us."

Calipari, running on less than a handful of hours of sleep, talked about the Cats' last few exhausting weeks.

"In some ways, it was a disappointment," he said. "But in other ways, this was a huge accomplishment."

He told the players that one day, they will get a chance to tell their grandkids the story of their "freshman season at Kentucky."

They'll be able to talk about how they started as a pre-season No. 1, then struggled and fell over and over again to more experienced teams before coming just one step short of finishing the season at No. 1.

The story will also include how the Cats, saddled with a No. 8 seed, rose up to knock off an unbeaten top seed in Wichita State. UK then had to beat its biggest rival, Louisville, and then top Michigan to even get to a Final Four.

They'll tell those grandkids where they were when Aaron Harrison hit that big shot against Louisville, then his second one against Michigan and then the last one against Wisconsin that propelled Kentucky to the championship game.

"We started climbing that mountain, this team together, and we slipped a couple times — we almost fell off a couple cliffs — but these guys kept climbing, kept climbing, kept climbing," Calipari told the crowd.

Kentucky climbed all the way to the summit, but fell a step short, the coach said.

"This was an unbelievable journey," he said.

It echoed what the school's athletics director said just a few minutes before when he addressed the crowd.

Another coach on campus reminded Mitch Barnhart that he told her the goal in athletics was "to create memories."

And then he added quietly: "Thanks, fellas, for some great memories. ... It's been a heck of a ride. I'm really, really proud of you."

While the players struggled to enjoy the moment, less than 13 hours after falling to Connecticut 60-54 in Arlington, Texas, they had a simple message for their fans.

It came via fifth-year senior Jon Hood.

"On behalf of all of us, thanks to our fans," he said. "You're the best in the world."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader.

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