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Kentucky Fans Watch 18-Year Drought End

April 2, 1996

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ Some cried, others hugged. Some just sat quietly and smiled.

However Kentucky’s faithful celebrated in the final seconds of the Wildcats’ 76-67 win over Syracuse for the school’s sixth national championship, one emotion seemed drawn on every fan’s face _ relief.

Kentucky last won the national championship in 1978. Since then, stars from Patrick Ewing to Christian Laettner have haunted Kentucky’s diehard followers and shattered their dreams of a championship celebration.

Until Monday night.

Bottles broke, firecrackers exploded and beer sprayed through the air inside the Two Keys Tavern as ``We Are the Champions″ pulsated over the speakers.

Hordes of euphoric blue-clad fans spilled out of the tavern onto Euclid Avenue as the game ended.

A police line sauntered up the road behind the growing throng, observing screaming fans as they jumped and yelled with delight. The celebration began to move down the aptly named Avenue of Champions toward Memorial Coliseum.

Lexington police were ready, gearing for the celebration.

``We’ve been planning this for two weeks in the event they win,″ said Lexington police chief Larry Walsh. ``We have an adequate force of men in place in the areas we think are high-risk. But we’re mainly going to be there to watch the people have fun. We’re hoping there won’t be any problems.″

Walsh said police arrested 20 people Saturday night after UK’s win over Massachusetts in the national semifinal game.

But fans who crammed into the Two Keys Tavern doubted the victory celebration would turn violent Monday night.

``It’ll be rowdy, but it will be a good kind of rowdy,″ said Brad Bradhafner, a UK senior from Indianapolis. ``I don’t think police should have too much trouble at all. You hear about what happened in Chicago when the Bulls won and those riots broke out (in 1992). I don’t think that’ll happen here, because everyone will be in such a good mood.″

Fans weren’t even thinking about the possibility of a Syracuse upset.

``In these later years, I’ve learned to expect defeat _ you could just tell they weren’t going to win it,″ said Woodson Reynolds, who wore Larry Conley’s 1966 letter jacket to a blue-clad bash at the Radisson Hotel Monday night. ``But I haven’t ever had expectations like this for a team. I’ve followed (Kentucky) since the 1950s, and I told my son after the first game this season, `This is the best Kentucky team I’ve ever seen.′ ″

Reynolds and Conley are friends, and Reynolds asked Conley, who was in New Jersey for the game, if he could wear the jacket.

Reynolds remembers when the Final Four lacked the visibility it had Monday night.

``There was no security at all around the players,″ said Reynolds. ``If you were a fan, you could walk right up and hang out with the players in their hotel. I don’t think we wore all that stuff _ the T-shirts, the sweats, the hats. The whole pace was a lot more subdued.″

Greg and Kathy Snow were celebrating their second wedding anniversary at the Radisson.

``We wanted to celebrate the championship on the same day,″ said Greg Snow. ``We’ve been up since about 6 this morning.″

Snow said this season generated more excitement than the most recent UK trip to the Final Four in 1993.

``That team seemed up and down,″ said Snow. ``We were just starting to get good after the probation. Now (UK coach Rick Pitino) has his recruits and they’re dominating. Even if they do something bad like have an off-shooting night, they can still win by 20 or 25.″

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