Remembering last year’s national title

It all came together one year ago today.

The wait, the hard work, the anticipation — they all came to one sweet conclusion with Kentucky’s 67-59 victory over Kansas in the in New Orleans. It was UK’s eighth national championship and first since 1998, not to mention it was John Calipari’s first title.

A lot has changed since then after a humbling 2012-13 season, but ultimately nothing can take away or make anyone forget what was one of the most memorable title runs in school history. If nothing else, this past season’s inconsistencies and struggles have made everyone remember just how special that 2011-12 team was and taught everyone to appreciate what it’s like to be on top.

“We have so many things to be thankful for,” Calipari said Tuesday. “For me personally, this year was a learning, growing, humbling experience, but I am still so grateful for all the good things that happened to our program, our state, our university, and to me and my family. When you think about it, it was one year ago today that we were cutting down the nets. It’s still hard for me to believe that I’m the head coach at the University of Kentucky.

Coach Cal was the first to say a couple weeks ago that this past year has been humbling and has vowed to come back stronger than ever, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point of this post is to look back and remember. It seems like just yesterday I was standing in the elevator with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at a hotel in New Orleans just a few hours after he cut down the nets in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He was getting ready to go celebrate with his teammates.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist smiles on the way to receive the NABC national championship trophy. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

I remember Kidd-Gilchrist’s smile and uncontrollable joy. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone more genuinely happy than he was during that moment. Of all the moments of that national championship — and there were plenty of unforgettable memories that I got to take in from the sidelines of the run — that one for some reason seems to stick out for me more than any other. It was pure, unadulterated happiness.

There are a lot of ways you can go back and relive the title — you can do it on this site but searching for posts under the tag “national championship” — but I wanted to link back to that night of celebration as my way of doing it and sharing with you. For one, it was one of the most enjoyable stories I have had the privilege of writing and I think it does a pretty good job of painting a picture of the joy everyone felt — from 18-year-old kids to fans to middle-aged coaches — from coming together and achieving a collective goal.

An excerpt of the story is below, but you can find the full story along with other national title links here.

NEW ORLEANS – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is standing in an elevator. He’s shaking his head in disbelief. He’s smiling. He’s laughing.

He’s soaking it all in.

It’s 1:30 a.m. in New Orleans and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist appears to be headed upstairs to his room. He’s just been through a gauntlet of emotions.

He’s played the biggest game of his life, celebrated a national championship with his teammates, cut down the nets, hugged family and friends, talked with the press, rushed to a hotel to receive another national championship trophy, and then bussed back to the team hotel to a screaming, beaming mob of fans.

He should be exhausted. He should be ready for bed. So this writer, watching the joy on his face but confused by the thought that Kidd-Gilchrist, by being in the elevator and headed to his floor, could be going to bed soon, asks, “You’re not going to bed already, are you, Michael?”

“Hell no,” Kidd-Gilchrist says, laughing.

Hell no, indeed. There’s more partying to do – more celebrating No. 8.

——-

The players’ wake-up call isn’t until 10 a.m., but Kidd-Gilchrist can’t sleep. He couldn’t wait to go to bed the night before and, subconsciously, he couldn’t wait to wake up Monday morning, the day of UK’s national title showdown with Kansas.

Anthony Davis, who has been whisked around New Orleans all week to receive national player of the year trophies, is understandably tired and wants to take advantage of all the sleep he can get.

Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t going to let him though. He’s too excited to go, too ready to seize his chance at glory, too ready to just sit around and wait.

The party won’t happen for another 15 hours or so, but Kidd-Gilchrist is up, “screaming, playing music, saying, ‘We finally here.’ ”

The celebration has already begun.

——-

It’s just before midnight and Kentucky has won the national championship. It’s the program’s eighth national title and first since 1998.

It’s John Calipari’s first of his decorated coaching career.

The postgame celebration is what you would expect. Nets are cut down, coaches embrace and the players, donning gray hats that say “NO-1 GREATER,” dance for all the world to see. Confetti flies everywhere.

Darius Miller, a senior who was in the NIT his freshman season and never thought he’d be in the national title game at that point, is celebrating arguably the most satisfying career of any player in the Kentucky’s tradition-rich history.

He’s just become the second-ever player to win the Kentucky high school state championship, Kentucky Mr. Basketball and now a college national championship. Naturally, every photographer – hundreds of them – wants a picture of the senior leader, so he poses for them, peeking his eyes through the small clear, glass part of the NCAA national championship trophy.

“All the hard work that we put in this year, the sacrifices that people have made on this team means a lot, especially with these guys,” Miller says. “We’ve grown as brothers. We’ve had a lot of fun with this. I can’t really put into words how this feels.”

After the players watch Calipari take a snip of his first national championship net and gaze at their “One Shining Moment” tribute, Miller gives up the trophy to Terrence Jones. Just a year earlier Jones had walked off a Final Four court in a completely different fashion, stunned and saddened.

He would eventually reinvigorate himself, return to Kentucky with a goal of experiencing a moment a like this. Once he gets the trophy, he yells to reporters, “I’m not letting go of this.”

Eventually, Jones gives up the trophy near the stands in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to take a few pictures with fans.

“It would have took too long to get up there holding that big trophy,” Jones says, smiling.

He dashes into the stands with the rest of his teammates to be with his friends and family and to celebrate with the fans that have lived and died with their every move this season.

The Wildcats, carrying the burden of a 14-year title drought, know the fans, by Kentucky standards, have waited far too long for a championship. They know how much this means to them, how much they’ve wanted it.

“I know it means a lot to them,” Miller says. “It’s a big accomplishment for all of us here. We’re proud to be a part of something like this.”

Coach Cal understands the significance of a championship to the Commonwealth’s Team.

“It’s for the ages now,” Calipari says. “It’s the eighth national title.”