By LARRY VAUGHT
If it is Southeastern Conference Tournament time, it’s a given you are going to find University of Kentucky fan April Peal at the event no matter where it is being played.
She’s an emergency care doctor in Franklin, Tenn., who plans vacation time around the UK basketball schedule and has done so for years.
She went to her first SEC Tournament when she was in medical school at Louisville in 2002. The only SEC tourney Peal and her father have missed since then was 2009 in Tampa, the end of the Billy Gillispie disaster.
“I had to work the first two days of the tournament but we had planned to go to Florida for the semifinals and final but Kentucky lost to LSU in the second round, so we didn’t go,” said Peal, a western Kentucky native.
She’ll be in St. Louis this week not only with her father and four other friends, but it will also be her mother’s first trip to the SEC tourney where she might see her daughter wearing the blue tutu she sometimes saves for March Madness.
“It will be tons of fun, but the best part is my mom is going. She is definitely excited,” Peal said. “I love the SEC Tournament. It’s tons of fun. To me the crowd at the SEC tournament is 10 times rowdier than at Rupp. Plus, it’s awesome to go all over the host town for the week and see Cats fans everywhere and to here spontaneous C-A-T-S chants everywhere. I remember in Atlanta the MARTA train would be like a big UK pep rally heading to the (Georgia) dome. People doing Kentucky cheers the whole time.”
Like many UK fans, Peal and her father would buy a single-game ticket for the first tourney session and then try to buy tickets for remaining games from fans of the losing teams on day one. She learned quickly not to have any UK attire showing or ticket prices would be higher.
“After the SEC announced that Nashville would be the semi-permanent home of the tournament, I get tickets from the Nashville Sports Council. They offered a package for members where one could purchase tickets for all seven upcoming years the tournament was definitely scheduled in Nashville,” she said. “I bought that package and they extended that as tournaments are scheduled in Nashville. So if the tourney is in Nashville, I’m all set. This year the Nashville Sports Council actually helped me purchase tickets for St. Louis through the St. Louis Sports Council.”
Peal, who went to the Bahamas for UK’s last preseason exhibition trip, expected the team to have growing pains this year. After UK won at West Virginia, she thought UK had hit its stride before a rough five-game stretch — narrow win over Vanderbilt in Rupp followed by four straight losses — had her worried.
“I changed my hotel reservations for St. Louis assuming we most likely would be playing on Thursday and, if the unthinkable continued, could have to play on Wednesday. But the boys have looked great in recent games,” she said. “It seems Cal finally found that ‘switch’ and they are turned on and dialed in. If they keep playing like they have, I think they could definitely win the SEC Tournament, especially given all of our games will be essentially home games with all the BBN there.”
Peal is not one to worry about what there is to do in the host city. She’s all basketball on her trips with a few spur of the moment activity decisions once she gets to the host city.
“I am looking forward to spending lots of time with fellow Big Blue fans,” she said.
She has plenty of SEC memories to share. One of those was from Atlanta and the tornado game in 2008 when play was actually stopped for the night without UK playing.
“I had actually had not slept at all that day. I was in resident at University of Alabama-Birmingham and had been on call for 24 hours. I got off that morning, drove to Atlanta to meet my dad. We made it to the dome right before the start of the Mississippi State-Alabama game,” she recalled. “We all know what happened after that. We sat there for hours just waiting for the State-Alabama to be finished and Kentucky’s (game) to start but ended up being no Kentucky game. We still spent the rest of the week in Atlanta and watched the Kentucky game on TV (because fans were not allowed in the smaller arena where the tournament was moved to).”
What about her best memory?
She says that came in 2010, John Calipari’s first season as Kentucky’s coach when UK was down three points to Mississippi State.
“Eric Bledsoe was fouled and intentionally missed his second free throw and (DeMarcus) Cousins got the putback from a John Wall missed 3 to send the game to overtime,” Peal said. “We were so excited, my dad elbowed me in the nose cheering and I fell over the seat into the poor people in front of me. I have a scar on the knee from that fall, but it was well worth it.”
Believe her. And there’s plenty of more fans at the SEC Tournament games with the same passion, which is why Kentucky often has an even better home-court edge in this tournament than it does in Rupp Arena.
Whatever happens in St. Louis, Peal will hit the road for the NCAA Tournament with the Cats, too.
“I have the days off and ready to hop a plane or hit the road to wherever they end up playing,” she said. “I’ve had tickets for the first two rounds in Nashville since early last fall hoping Kentucky would play there but it looks as if we probably won’t.”
Maybe winning the SEC Tournament could get UK a spot in Nashville, but probably not. For Peal, it won’t matter. Nashville, Boise or anywhere in between, if it is March and Kentucky’s playing, this doctor is going to be out of the emergency room and in the arena watching her Cats play.
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