ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For more than two hours Monday night, a sold-out crowd at the Crisler Center believed.
They cheered as loudly as they had when Michigan State and Indiana were in the building battling the Wolverines. They sang The Victors and screamed for every Michigan basket and every Louisville miss.
It was almost like they were really at a basketball game.
Instead, 11,583 fans — most of them students — had packed the arena to watch the national championship game on the renovated arena’s giant video boards. There were cheerleaders, a pep band and long lines at the concession stands. With your eyes closed, you would have sworn the game was being played in front of you, not 700 miles away.
“There was no way we could afford to go to Atlanta, so we all wanted to be here,” Michigan sophomore Kevin White, who attended with several friends, said before the opening tip-off. “When we win tonight, we will be able to tell everyone that we saw it.”
The sound only died down as Louisville pulled away in the final moments. A table holding a mock championship trophy was quietly slipped off the floor during a TV timeout, and the arena’s public-address announcer stopped asking the students to behave themselves in the case of a national title.
Then, when Trey Burke’s desperate 3-pointer missed with 3.7 seconds left, the crowd began to quietly file out of the building. As the final buzzer sounded at the Georgia Dome, the band played the fight song one last time and then the alma mater as the stands emptied.
It was a quiet end to hours of bedlam.
Ninety minutes before the tip in Atlanta, the line at Crisler stretched halfway around the arena and alongside Michigan Stadium toward Main Street. With an hour to go, the arena was half full and fans were still streaming in.
“We’ve been here for almost two hours, and there must be 5,000 people behind us,” said Michigan freshman Angela Raye, who was still a good distance from the arena doors. “I don’t even know if everyone is going to be able to get in, so I’m glad we decided to come over early.”
To kill time and fire up a crowd that didn’t need much encouragement, Michigan’s semifinal victory over Syracuse played on the video board. As Jordan Morgan threw down his game-clinching dunk, the stands erupted and the pep band broke into The Victors. Within seconds, the arena was as loud as it was in the final moments of the Big Ten finale against Indiana.
At 9 p.m., the screens switched to the CBS broadcast. Although Russ Smith was playfully booed during pregame introductions, a cheer went up when Kevin Ware was shown entering the arena on crutches. It was nothing, though, compared to the roar for the first appearances of Burke and Mitch McGary.
But the biggest pregame ovation came when Michigan’s prodigal son, Chris Webber, was shown arriving at the Georgia Dome. His mistakes 20 years ago put two Final Four banners in a library storage room instead of hanging alongside the other four at Crisler — soon to be five — but he and his Fab Five teammates are still heroes in Ann Arbor.
When the game started, it was all about the present Wolverines, and the Crisler Center turned into the House That Spike and Trey Built. The fans reacted in disbelief as little Spike Albrecht, the kid without a Division I scholarship offer until Michigan grabbed him, became a household name with a 17-point shooting barrage in the first half.
Luke Hancock shot Louisville back into the game, and the Wolverines led only 38-37 at the half.
Burke, the consensus national player of the year, took over in the second half, kept his team alive in what was almost certainly the last game of his college career.
It wasn’t enough. the Cardinals showed down the stretch why they came in as the tournament’s top overall seed.
Still, the Crisler crowd kept urging on the Wolverines. In their heads, they knew no one in Atlanta could hear them, but they continued to cheer — louder than they had all season.
Their spirits finally broke in the waning seconds, and in the end, there was only silence.
Unfortunately, things didn’t stay that way. News reports of fires began to surface less than an hour after the game.