LAWRENCE — Jess Coffey strolled out of bed early Tuesday morning and began digging through his closet.
A former student at the University of Kansas, Coffey was still reeling from the Jayhawks’ loss in the national championship the night before as he searched for the appropriate shirt. He remembers smiling when he found it — a bright blue T-shirt that read "Jayhawk Proud."
He wore it everywhere he went Tuesday, which included an evening drive to Allen Fieldhouse to welcome home the Jayhawks from New Orleans, where they lost to Kentucky in the NCAA championship game on Monday night.
"This is what I want the players to know," Coffey said. "We’re so proud of what they were able to do this year, when nobody — including myself — thought they would get there.
"We owe them a thank you."
Coffey was one of about 4,000 fans to give the team exactly that as it returned to Lawrence on Tuesday evening.
Lines formed outside Allen Fieldhouse before fans were let in at 6:30 p.m. They watched a replay of Kansas’ victory in the Final Four against Ohio State — cheering KU baskets and collectively booing a late Jeff Withey traveling call — before the players strutted onto center court at 7:45 while an introduction played on the JumboTron.
Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Connor Teahan and Jordan Juneman took turns thanking the crowd for its support in an atmosphere that felt similar to senior night. Less than 24 hours removed from the sting of a national-championship defeaty, smiles had overtaken their tears, and they were able to reflect on an accomplished season.
"We have a great group of guys that fought hard every day," said Taylor, wearing beads from New Orleans around his neck. "We never quit. We kept fighting through everything. I loved this team."
The crowd saved its loudest welcoming for coach Bill Self, who spoke last. He was the first to mention the unmentionable — Monday night’s loss to the Wildcats.
"We may have come up a little short last night," Self said as a few members of the crowd groaned. "I personally think we just ran out of time."
KU sophomore Colin Belmont, who went to every home game this season, said he attended the homecoming because the players had earned his respect during their memorable tournament run.
He also wanted to see this particular team one last time — a thought that also stood out to Self.
"The reality of it is you’re never going to see these guys play (together) again," Self said. "To me, that’s the thing that’s the most sad.
"When we get attached, we want to see it last as long as possible, and these guys lasted until the very end."
With that, Self handed off the microphone and walked toward the exit. His players followed suit.
Robinson, a junior, looked back toward the crowd one more time — possibly his last time as a player on this court, as he’s widely expected to enter this summer’s NBA draft — and threw his hands up into the air to wave.
The crowd cheered. One fan shouted, "One more year!"
Robinson smiled and pointed at him.
"I’ll stay if everyone else stays," he said.