Nashville becomes UK’s second home


Fans take pictures of the team warming up before the UK mens basketball team’s 73-67 win over Alabama in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament at the Sommet Center Friday, March 12, 2010. Photo by Britney McIntosh

NASHVILLE, Tenn – The Cats have found a new home away from home, and it lies in enemy territory.

The Southeastern Conference Tournament, located in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., this season, has become a Rupp Arena Jr. of sorts.

Walking toward Bridgestone Arena at 9:30 a.m. local time on Friday afternoon, the sight outside Bridgestone Arena was similar to something fans would see outside of Rupp Arena two-and-a-half hours before tip-off — a sea of blue filled the streets.

“It just feels like home,” said freshman guard Eric Bledsoe after the Cats’ 73-67 win over Alabama in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “It feels like we’re back at Rupp (Arena).”

It sounds like home too. The Big Blue Nation swarmed into the “neutral” site Friday afternoon like starving ants at a picnic. Chants of “Blue, White” and “Go Big Blue” flooded out of the seats throughout the game, and erupted with each UK basket.

“Today’s crowd was more UK fans than I’ve seen on the first day in all the SEC (Tournaments) I’ve been going to,” said Chris Elliot a worker at Toyota in Lexington.

Elliot has been to five SEC Tournaments, with this year’s tournament being his second in Nashville, Tenn. Elliot said the passion for UK is bred into the people from birth, and no other team travels the way UK does.

For Debbie Stephens, a worker at UK in the sports medicine department, this year’s tournament marks her 15th straight tournament.

“I take off one week (of work) every year,” Stephens said.

Stephens said the UK turnout at this year’s tournament wasn’t a surprise to her. Stephens instead called the SEC Tournament travel a tradition for UK fans. That swarm of people means money for local businesses.

“Everywhere they go, like let’s say here in Nashville, the people want them to win because as soon as Kentucky loses everybody goes home,” Stephens said. “They bring money and excitement.”

Evan Hunley, a 17-year old from Hendersonville, Tenn., which lies about 15 minutes outside of Nashville, Tenn., said the swarm of UK fans was kind of a shock because it’s normally filled with Vanderbilt or Tennessee oriented. Hunley compared it to a Tennessee Titans football game day.

Hunley said he considers himself a medium UK fan, but a huge John Wall fan.

“It’s unbelievable the fan support they have,” Hunley said. “It’s a culture to them.”

For a team with the youth that UK has, the massive fan support could be crucial. In Saturday afternoon’s game against Tennessee, the UK fanbase may be rivaled by Tennessee, but the common feel is that UK will still hold the advantage.

For a game between two rivals with a trip to the SEC Championship on the line, momentum could prove to be a pivotal factor as the clock winds down. Tennessee will be playing for a higher seed while the Cats will be looking to win their 26th SEC Tournament Championship, and their first since 2004.

Freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said the massive UK crowd helps them out a lot.

“Our fans have carried us through the season a lot this year. I mean, home and away,” Cousins said. “It just helps us get the energy, helps us get going.”