HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - ''Very, very close.''
Those words from Jane Meier, Northern Kentucky University's athletic director, summarized the feelings of the roughly 200 people attending a rally Saturday for the national runner-up Norse basketball team.
For the second consecutive year, the Norse lost the NCAA Division II title match. But their fans see the players as champions in other ways.
''They never disappoint us,'' said Fran Zaniello, director of the freshman orientation University 101 program who teaches two players. ''They're an amazing group of guys.''
This year's 30-5 NKU squad lost to California State Bakersfield 57-56 in Louisville. Last year, upstart NKU lost the title to No.1-ranked Fort Hays State (Kan.), 70-63.
This time the school's championship appearance wasn't so surprising.
''This year is harder,'' Ms. Zaniello said.
Saturday's game ended as Andy Listerman missed a last-second shot off an inbounds pass. Some fans thought he was fouled.
Marlene Gerding, a psychiatric social work junior, and her son Bart ''TV'd'' the game.
''It was one of the most thrilling sporting events I've ever been a part of,'' she said. ''The rush was so great during the game that you couldn't believe it was over.''
Brent Wilson, 22, of Lynchburg, Ohio, went to Louisville and the campus pep rally at Regents Hall to watch his high school classmate, Paul Cluxton, play for the Norse.
''The atmosphere was great,'' he said.
Many of the fans waited in the gym as long as an hour for the team to return.
The players were subdued as they entered their home court one more time, but no one hung his head, including the three seniors, Cluxton, LaRon Moore and Shannon Minor.
''Those three seniors have really done a lot for this program,'' Wilson said.
Coach Ken Shields spoke about the game - which saw the Norse trail by 15 in the opening minutes - the team, its season, his family and the school's supporters at the rally.
''I'm sure that nobody turned it off, if they stayed with it after the first five minutes,'' Shields said. ''Coaches all across America were envious of the way our young men play.''
The coach had one other observation.
''I'm telling you this. We're going to be back next year. ... We're going to be right back competing for the title again.''
ONE WIN SHORT AGAIN
MINOR TOO HAPPY TO BE UPSET
MARCH MADNESS PAGE