The DC-10 carrying the ever-so-barely vanquished University of Kentucky Wildcats was cheered before it ever touched ground. Spotted first by airport personnel high above the northeast horizon around 2:43 p.m., the USA Jet Airlines flight battled the wind, wobbled a bit and landed solidly to cheers of a small but enthusiastic crowd of 75.
It would take the players another hour of being in town and being near the comfort of their own dormitory for them to reach out and touch the Wildcat faithful who had come to embrace the team that had traveled so far.
In time, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, DeAndre Liggins, Doron Lamb, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller would sign their names on posters, T-shirts, basketballs, jeans shorts, graduation caps, medical equipment and books. They would pose for pictures with babies, grandmothers and whole families. They would respond kindly when people would say things like, "Thank you, we love you." They would nod when people would beg them to stay.
Admittedly, the crowd was smaller than expected, though no less willing to make themselves heard.
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Scott Lanter, Blue Grass Airport's chief of public safety, said he was surprised by the low turnout but figured that was because it was a nice spring day — and many people might have been getting out of church.
Still, some fans had been at the TAC Air terminal since 11 a.m., basking in the beautiful day, admiring the blue and white sky, the blue and white clothing of others, and the blue and white hair spray on the heads of small children.
In fact, Jason and Heather Watts and their pal Casey Wilcox had been at the airport since 3 a.m.
"We were ready to camp out and join the party, but nobody was here," said Jason Watts, 30, of Georgetown.
When they returned at noon, only the Kimes family had beat them to the outdoor terminal viewing area.
"They're still our champs," said Justin Kimes, 30, of Lexington, who surprised his two boys and nephew Sunday morning with the impromptu outing. Dakota Kimes, 10, Jayden Kimes, 6, and Shawn Perkins, 10, all stood anxiously against the fence, holding the Whitaker Bank cards with 3s on them, poised with pens for the autographs that no one offered.
When the team left without acknowledging the trio of boys, they were dejected. Even Marann Holderby, 6, of Lexington seemed sad that she had not had a chance to propose to Harrellson as she had planned.
With a Lexington police and UK police escort, the team bus left the airport to return to campus, where more fans were waiting. The Kimes family decided not to give up on those autographs and followed the bus into town.
For a long few minutes, the assembled 50 or so people behind the UK police barricade worried the team wasn't coming out of the dorm.
"We came all the way from Cincinnati," said Polly Carrico, 69, a Cats fan since she married one 50 years ago. "I've stood here for an hour and a half. I've had two knee replacements. I just wanted to welcome them home and tell them they've had a great season."
Jenny Carrico, Polly's daughter, reminded her that Coach John Calipari had said that "if fans left them alone during the tournament they would come out after it was over and let us get pictures and autographs. I'm really afraid they're not going to do that."
And yet, just as she finished that sentence, out they walked.
"We love you," yelled Patti Hartness, 33, of Louisville.
"We do," yelled Beverly Callan, 58, of Manchester, behind her.
And so the Wildcats went to work.
Liggins, tall and lean and towering, stooped over to pick up a small pink autograph book with a kitty on its cover, and signed a page proferred by Ella Kate Cooper, 6, who had a UK necklace around her neck.
And Shawn, whose face had fallen three feet an hour earlier at the airport, nearly broke it from smiling so much.
The only word he could speak was "awesome."