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Butler's near-miss run captivates thousands of fans

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Butler was a bounce away from history.

The Bulldogs' stirring ride through the NCAA tournament ended with a 61-59 loss to Duke in the championship game Monday night, but more than 3,000 fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse still cheered in admiration moments after Gordon Hayward's half-court shot caromed off the rim.

After all, they had experienced something beyond their wildest dreams.

When Matt Howard made a second straight shot to cut Butler's deficit to 60-59 in the final minute, the crowd erupted, then stood in unison through an entire timeout. When Butler got a stop and had a chance to go for the win, it was pandemonium.

"I'm getting too old for this," said Jack Conolly, a 1954 Butler graduate.

With 13.6 seconds left, Butler inbounded the ball. The crowd held its breath as Hayward launched a baseline fadeaway that could have clinched a national championship.

The shot bounced away, and so did Butler's best shot at an upset.

"I couldn't be prouder of those boys, God love 'em," Conolly said. "Duke won it. They're a great team with a great coach. They brought it. But boy, didn't we hang in there?"

With classes canceled on Tuesday, win or lose, 3,300 fans watched on four big-screen televisions in the storied fieldhouse that houses Butler's homecourt. By the time the somber Bulldogs returned to Hinkle at about 1 a.m. Tuesday, 90 minutes after the game, the crowd had dwindled to fewer than 100.

That didn't bother Howard, who stuck around to chat with about a dozen people outside.

"Seriously, it was nice that there were some people here," he said. "Being out here with my family and friends, this is good enough for me."

Howard said the bus ride from downtown to the Butler campus was quiet, save for a few honking cars and people waving at the team.

"It was nice, people wanted to say they were happy," he said. "They enjoyed the whole road, but even they were a little disappointed with the way it ended. But that's not really going to change the way they feel about us."

It was the third runner-up finish for the city in the past six months. The Indiana Fever lost in the WNBA finals, the Indianapolis Colts lost the Super Bowl and now Butler.

Still, nothing could take away from the experience for some fans. Dennis Ogle, 68, was a Purdue graduate cheering for Butler.

"This is the best," he said. "You may never get a chance to see something like this again — as old as I am, I probably won't — for the rest of my life. I wasn't going to miss seeing the crowd here.

"It could be 20 years before you see something like this again at a small school in Indiana, or any other place for that matter."

The host city spent the entire day getting ready for what it hoped would be a special moment.

Several thousand people showed up at a midday pep rally held at Monument Circle, the same downtown location where fans converged after the Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007. Fans in T-shirts, some blue, some white, some gray, stood next to men in suits who came out during their lunch breaks to soak in the experience.

The normally quiet campus was swamped by fans enchanted by the team's surprising run to the title game.

"We're not really used to it," sophomore Melissa Florit said while standing among the masses at the campus bookstore. "The 4,500 of us aren't used to having 4,500 more of us here. Some don't like the publicity, with us being a small family-oriented campus. Everyone's here, cameras are everywhere. But it's good that people don't have to ask me, 'What's Butler?'"

Not anymore.

The Bulldogs got to the championship by putting together a 25-game winning streak that captured the nation's attention. With two-thirds of the roster coming from Indiana, many likened them to the high school team from tiny Milan that won the Indiana state basketball championship in 1954 against a much bigger school.

That game, won by Milan on Bobby Plump's buzzer-beating shot, happened at Hinkle, Butler's home court. The fieldhouse's Spirit Shop had a steady stream of patrons Monday and visitors continued to tour the historic building that opened in 1928.

"In the story of David and Goliath, David can take down Goliath," said Bob Rodgers, 56, of Shelbyville. "It takes a stone well-cast, though."

A mile away, Plump, perhaps the most famous Butler alum, talked Bulldog basketball with fans at the family restaurant, Plump's Last Shot.

"When you step on that floor, all that matters is what you do for 40 minutes between those lines," he said before the game. Plump said the Bulldogs already have made themselves Hoosier legends.

"It's historic," he said. "To go from Christmas to Easter and not lose is historic in itself. They'll talk about this forever, win or lose."

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