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Victorious Kentucky returns home to adoring fans
Updated 4/4/2012 12:05 AM ET
LEXINGTON, KY. — Kay Burgess was at the airport to greet University of Kentucky basketball players as they returned home with a national championship in 1978.

She attended fan celebrations after wins in 1996 and 1998. And for 14 years, the 67-year-old had longed to see the Wildcats bring home one more national title.

"It was on my bucket list," Burgess said Tuesday as she waited at Rupp Arena to applaud the team that captured the school's eighth NCAA Championship on Monday.

MORE: Kentucky completes dominating season with national title MORE: Shots, dozens of arrests in Lexington after Kentucky victory BLOG: Twitter buzzing about Lexington police scanner

"I wanted number eight," she said. "I'm not going to say number nine. I'm satisfied with eight."

More than 20,000 people packed Rupp Arena for the celebration, cheering players and watching the championship banner slowly drop from the rafters as the theme song to "2001: A Space Odyssey" blared over the sound system.

The team bus, traveling directly from the Lexington airport, pulled onto the arena floor to great fanfare as players and coaches exited one by one. Senior Darius Miller carried the trophy.

Fans supplied soaring applause for nearly 30 minutes while speakers praised the season's successes and the university's efforts. The crowd broke into chants several times, crying out "Go Big Blue" and "C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats."

UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said the reality of the 67-59 victory over Kansas didn't set in until the bus was driving through Lexington to Rupp.

"I've been here 10 years," he said. "This is why I came here."

Barnhart said UK's basketball program was made for coach John Calipari.

But Calipari immediately heaped praise on players and fans, recounting how a crowd of what "seemed like 5,000 people" greeted the team at the airport while other UK supporters lined the streets as the bus drove through town.

"You people never cease to amaze me," he said to cheers.

Calipari said players achieved the title this year by playing for their teammates rather than themselves. He asked the crowd if they knew why UK secured then national title, then answered: "We have the best players and we were the best … basketball team."

Miller said the team just wanted to thank fans for so much support through the season.

For many, the event culminated more than a decade of nervous anticipation and prompted a mood of near universal exuberance. Cars honked as they drove past Rupp Arena. People waited in line all morning for free tickets.

Bill and Louise Lambdin, who attended the celebration with granddaughter Hannah, drove down from Cincinnati as they have for every home game this season.

Burgess donned a blue-sequined suit and homemade T-shirt and began waiting in the ticket line at 1 a.m. with two friends, calling themselves "Cal's Gals."

Jim Dowden said he left work early once a friend scored seats.

"It's been 14 years since we've won a championship," he said. "We've been a little over-anxious to win one."

Gov. Steve Beshear, who was among the revelers on the arena floor, said Kentucky was essentially shut down because of the widespread interest in the game. But, he said, the victory allowed the state to put its best foot forward on the national and international stage.

"It's going to help us quite honestly in a lot of intangible ways to recruit businesses, to keep business we have and to expand our economy," he said. "It's a real plus for us."

Even President Barack Obama personally congratulated the team by phone Tuesday, saying it played with class and dignity.

Though loud and lively, Tuesday's official celebration did not mirror the illegal behavior of some partiers Monday night, when thousands converged in areas around UK campus and downtown Lexington.

Lexington Fire reported 60 nuisance fires and 25 EMS runs in the vicinity of victory parties. Young people in the residential area on State Street set a garage on fire, a car crashed into the patio of a downtown restaurant, and a man was shot in the leg near campus on Limestone Avenue.

Police say doctors amputated the foot of the wounded man. Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts says 31-year-old Harold Calloway remained hospitalized Tuesday. No arrests have been made in the shooting.

Despite the incidents, officials said the vast majority of fans celebrated responsibly.

"What I was so proud of was the teamwork that was represented within our public safety (departments) and beyond that so many in our community," said Mayor Jim Gray.

Posted 4/3/2012 6:35 PM ET
Updated 4/4/2012 12:05 AM ET
Wildcats forwards Eloy Vargas (left), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (center) and Anthony Davis (right) celebrate after defeating the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59 in the national championship game.
By Derick E. Hingle, US Presswire
Wildcats forwards Eloy Vargas (left), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (center) and Anthony Davis (right) celebrate after defeating the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59 in the national championship game.