CANCUN, Mexico — Even before the first tip-off Tuesday, the influx of Kentucky fans made a big difference in the Cancun Challenge.
In last year's inaugural tournament for men and in the six years of women's games, the court was set East-West — or perpendicular — in the rectangular Galactic Ballroom. That meant little room beyond the end lines.
Tournament officials set bleachers along each sideline with plenty of empty space to the walls. The crowd for last year's Wake Forest-Virginia Commonwealth finals was no more than 300, said Robert Hoffmann, a facilities manager for the sponsoring Triple Crown Sports.
Because Kentucky fans bought almost 500 ticket packages, tournament officials moved the court to a North-South configuration. The rectangular court sits in the middle of a rectangular ballroom. That provided room for seven rows of bleachers behind the benches, six rows behind the opposite sideline and seven more rows behind each end line.
Capacity is 1,300 this year and could have gone up to as much as 2,000 had more UK fans bought tickets.
UK fans had to be rowdy to match fans for the Connecticut's women team. Facilities director Jeff Jamison said UConn brought about 450 fans when it played in the Cancun Challenge.
"And they were wild," Jamison said. "Great fans."
Chandeliers never hit
The setting for the Cancun Challenge was unusual, to say the least. The court is placed in the Galactic Ballroom of the five-star Moon Palace resort.
There were 22 chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Two of the chandeliers hung over the court between the center and foul-line circles, which raised the possibility of a long pass or terribly misguided shot hitting one of them.
That's never happened in the six-year history of women's games nor in the now two years of men's tournaments, Jamison said.
The chandeliers are about 29 feet above the court, Hoffmann said.
The closest came in the first women's event when a player kicked a ball in frustration, sending it off a chandelier.
To improve lighting for television, 30 sets of fluorescent tubes were strung across the ballroom ceiling.
This is believed to be the smallest setting for a regular-season UK game. When Kentucky played at Chaminade in November 1985, Chaminade's McCabe Gym (capacity 2,800) was like Rupp Arena compared to the Galactic Ballroom.
If UK fans want to greet their team on their return from Cancun, they'll have to do it in Cincinnati.
Why Cincinnati? Because the Cats have to pass through customs at an international airport, and Cincinnati is the closest.
The team planned to fly from Cancun to Cincinnati, arriving at 4 p.m. Thursday. From Cincinnati, the Cats planned to ride a bus to Lexington.
'Quite an adventure'
Sam Houston State won the Cancun Challenge Mayan Division title by beating Rider 80-68. Coach Bob Marlin noted how his team had been on a road trip that began in Rupp Arena and continued to Cleveland State and finally Mexico.
"Starting in Rupp Arena with 24,000 fans to this, with 235," Marlin said after his team beat Rider. "Quite an adventure."
Two Sam Houston State players made the Mayan Division All-Tournament team: guards Ashton Mitchell and Corey Allmond. Mitchell, named MVP, hit 16 of 26 shots and averaged 22 points in two games. He had nine assists and two turnovers in 64 minutes.
Allmond, who lit up UK with a Rupp-record 11 three-pointers, made five of 14 three-point shots in the two games here. He averaged 15.5 points.
Other members of the Mayan Division All-Tournament team were Justin Robinson and Ryan Thompson of Rider, Dominique Morrison of Oral Roberts and Christopher Walker of Florida A&M.