LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -There were no whoops of joy or giddy hugs at coach Billy Gillispie's house when the Kentucky logo flashed across the TV screen Sunday night.
Instead, there was a feeling of relief for a program that spent the last four months riding a roller-coaster of a season. The journey brought the Wildcats to a familiar spot: their 17th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
``At one point in the season, everybody gave up on us having a chance to even be in the tournament,'' guard Joe Crawford said. ``So to fight back all this way and play so well in the SEC, it's been one of my most rewarding years.''
Kentucky (18-12) is the 11th seed in the South Region and plays sixth-seeded Marquette (24-9) in the opening round in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday.
It was a scenario that seemed remote for college basketball's all-time winningest program two months ago after consecutive losses to Mississippi State and Florida left the Wildcats reeling at 7-9. Fans also wondered if Gillispie was the right man to replace Tubby Smith.
Well, Gillispie is in the tournament and Smith, now the coach at Minnesota, won't be in the NCAAs for the first time in 15 years. It was hardly a given for Kentucky, though, particularly after falling to Georgia in the SEC quarterfinals on Saturday.
``This year was like, we don't know,'' guard Ramel Bradley said. ``We kind of felt like one of those teams not used to winning all the time and were just excited to make it to the big dance.''
It's a sentiment the Wildcats know they'll have to get over by Thursday. Kentucky hasn't lost a first-round game since 1987, before the majority of the players on this year's team were even born.
The Wildcats will join Rick Pitino's Louisville squad and Western Kentucky as NCAA tournament teams from the state of Kentucky.
The last time Kentucky played Marquette, the Golden Eagles used a triple-double from Dwyane Wade to beat the Wildcats in the 2003 Midwest Regional final and advance to the Final Four.
The stakes won't be quite as high Thursday, though making it to the tournament means the Wildcats can finally relax after spending months trying to live down nonconference losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego.
``I think we have a fresh start again,'' Crawford said. ``Everybody is 0-0 again and we can go out there and shake things up.''
The Wildcats made it behind a stirring rally down the stretch, winning 11 of their final 13 regular-season games to finish 12-4 in the SEC. The record was all the more remarkable considering they played most of the year without guard Jodie Meeks and lost freshman standout Patrick Patterson to an ankle injury more than two weeks ago.
Gillispie fought back tears while talking about how far his team has come since November, an unusual display of emotion for a coach who peppers every conversation with the words ``toughness'' and ``determination,'' two qualities he questioned in his own players when the season began.
``I've never seen a tougher team physically or mentally to be able to overcome the things that were placed in front of them that were beyond their control,'' Gillispie said. ``They've learned a life lesson this year, that you can achieve anything if you stick together, if you know you who you're sticking with and you start rowing that boat in the same direction.''

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