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April 3, 2012

Calipari, players return to celebrate at Rupp Arena




Kentucky's national championship season ended the same way it began. Head coach John Calipari to a podium at Rupp Arena. Thousands of fans roared in approval before he could even say a single word.

Behind him, the Kentucky players and staff sat. They craned their necks, scanning the crowd.

In front of him was a national championship trophy.

"The first time you heard me speak was Midnight Madness three years ago," Calipari told the sold-out crowd. "I said we want to be the gold standard of college basketball. We want to recruit the best and the brightest. We want to have parades. We want to be No. 1 in the country. And we want to raise banners. Let's raise one today!"

To the far right of Kentucky's 14 banners that were already hung, a rolled banner floated in midair. Calipari turned to face it. His team followed suit. So did 20,000 fans.

Tickets were made available at 8 a.m., less than eight hours before the bus carrying the team rolled into Rupp Arena. But that didn't stop Wildcat fans from taking up the entire allotment and filling the building.

One by one, Calipari thanked each of his players and coaches. He came to the podium moments after a teary Mitch Barnhart thanked the coach for all his work. The athletic director recognized the administrators, family members and staff who helped the Wildcats on their championship run. But mostly, he spoke about Calipari.

"Coach has said this program isn't for everybody," Barnhart said. "It isn't. But I do know one thing for sure: It was made for him."

University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto sat in the front row for the celebration. Next to him was Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (R), a UK alumni. Senior Darius Miller waded through the crowd with the net from New Orleans hung around his neck. He carried the trophy with him.

The moment wasn't lost on Beshear.

"It's very important for Kentucky because things like this put us on the national and the international stage," Beshear said. "The focus of the world, really, was on Kentucky this last weekend. I think we put our best foot forward.

"Those kids played like the team they are, the most talent I've ever seen on one team. But unselfish play, and that's why they won it. That sends a great message about how Cal can coach and what this state is all about."

Calipari recognized Miller for being willing to come off the bench in his final season. He spoke about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's sacrifices as a teammate. He thanked Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb for returning for their sophomore years. He talked about the ability of national player of the year Anthony Davis, and the development of point guard Marquis Teague.

His voice was hoarse after a long night and a month of postseason play. He talked about the future of the program. But this was a night to celebrate a moment. A moment in the present that will live in the history of the program.

Kentucky's eighth national championship banner was unfurled minutes later.

"Do you know why we won the national title?" Calipari asked the crowd. "We had the best players and we were the best team. Just talent alone falls short. These talented men sacrificed for each other. They respected one another. They played for their teammates."



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