INDIANAPOLIS — At halftime, Hinkle Fieldhouse was rocking.
Ten minutes into the second half, Butler’s home venue was nearly silent.
Blue-clad fans left the historic venue disappointed for the second consecutive year after Connecticut beat the Bulldogs 53-41 in the National Championship Game on Monday night. Butler led at halftime, but shot poorly in the second half.
Butler surprised many by reaching last year’s final in its hometown of Indianapolis, and the Bulldogs were one shot away from an upset win against Duke. This time, Butler’s fans had higher expectations.
Butler opened Hinkle to fans who didn’t make the trip to Houston, and about 7,500 showed up to watch the game on big-screen televisions. The fans erupted when Shelvin Mack made a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the first half to give Butler a 22-19 lead.
“Everybody was super pumped,” Robbie Kimes, a sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind., said. “I was texting family and everybody. Twenty more minutes. Everything looked like we would be able to pull it through.”
“We were all screaming,” Butler fan Kyle Musleh of Indianapolis said. “It was insane.”
Fans considered Butler’s halftime lead a good sign because the Bulldogs have been a strong second-half team. They didn’t have much to cheer about after the break.
“It felt like everybody’s hearts just dropped, for however long we didn’t score,” sophomore Hitesh Dube said. “Every time the ball would go in, it would bounce back out.”
The lines were several blocks long two hours before the game began. Doors opened at about 8 p.m., and a surge of energy quickly overtook the building.
That energy increased when Mack made his 3-pointer.
|STORMIN’ AT HOME|
|STORRS, Conn. — Thousands of Connecticut students stormed the court at Gampel Pavilion Monday night as if the Huskies had just won the national championship at home.|
|• Complete story, click here|
“UConn is dog chow,” Justin Eells, a Butler student from Indianapolis, said.
The Huskies came out strong in the second half. Kemba Walker’s acrobatic layup gave Connecticut a 39-28 edge.
Butler continued to struggle.
“They couldn’t put it in the hoop,” Patrick Thevenow, a junior from Madison, Ind., said. “They’ve been great at it all season.”
But fans still appreciated the team’s late-season surge. The Bulldogs won 14 straight to reach the final. Expectations were tempered this season because the team’s star from last year, Gordon Hayward, left for the NBA.
“It was a great run as far as getting to the championship game again, especially without Hayward,” Matt Hacker, a freshman from New Castle, Ind., said. “We have a lot of team players that did really well up to the championship game. They just had a bad game.”
It was an all-day party in Indianapolis. Patrons began filing into Plump’s Last Shot about three hours before tip-off. The owner is Bobby Plump, a former Butler player who was immortalized in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers.” That movie was a fictional account of the small-town Milan Indians team he took to an unlikely Indiana high school title in 1954.
Vince White, a bartender at Plump’s Last Shot, didn’t expect the Bulldogs to make it to the Final Four again this year, so he considered this run a bonus.
“It’s been extremely exciting,” he said. “Last year, we thought was a once in a lifetime. This is just another bite on the apple.”
They now still have high hopes for the future.
“Once we got here, we thought, second time, we’ve got to get this,” Thevenow said. “But, third time’s the charm.”
Even if Butler doesn’t return to the championship game next year, back-to-back finals are special.
“Yeah, we lost, but we are not Duke and Ohio State,” sophomore Hannah Vechino of Indianapolis said. “Where are all the big teams? Where are all the No. 1 seeds? We’re disappointed, but we’re going to come here tomorrow and cheer for these guys. We finished second in the nation. Nobody else can say that, and we did it twice.”