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More than enough fun

Even with loss SW Missouri State fans enjoyed ride

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Posted: Saturday March 20, 1999 12:41 AM

  Bears' fans were optimistic heading into their Sweet 16 game against Duke. AP

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) -- Even before the score flashing on the TV above him slowly began to turn lopsided, Mark Murphy was philosophical about Southwest Missouri's debut into the heady world of Big-Time Basketball.

"At least this will put us on the map for something besides Branson," he said as he smiled up at the giant screen where his SMS Bears could be seen at the moment trailing all-powerful Duke by only nine points in the East Regional semifinals Friday night.

And if SMS somehow pulled off a miracle and actually won this game?

"It will be the greatest upset of the century," Kevin Ross shouted from a table nearby.

"And it will be a great birthday present," he added, grinning from ear to ear. "It's my birthday today. I'm 29 years old."

But alas for Springfield basketball fans everywhere, his birthday was not a day for miracles. Not this day.

For when it was all over but the cheering -- and even in defeat there was still plenty of that -- the little team from Springfield that had said it could and then nearly convinced everyone around here that it could, suddenly couldn't anymore. The top-rated team in the country had stopped it, 78-61.

"We put up a valiant fight. But it looks like Duke is overwhelming us with their All-Americans," Kendel Beard, smiling sadly, said as the clock ticked down to two minutes with his Bears down by 20 points.

But until SMS's shots suddenly stopped falling in the second half, what a ride it had been.

For more than 20 minutes of the game, through the whole first half and then some, it looked to this crowd sitting elbow-to-elbow in the hot, smoky confines of Russ Koeneman's sports bar that, improbable as it was, SMS might actually win this thing.

"I don't think Duke's doing what they expected to do to SMS," Jenny Stoecker, watching the game with her husband, Rob, said, breaking into a smile when a Duke player glared with frustration as the score stood 25-20 midway in the first half.

"I don't think Duke likes that," she added.

Certainly Duke wasn't used to that. This was a team that had been up 53-23 at the half against Tulsa just last week. It was a team that had won each of its last two games by 41 points.

But it could beat SMS by only 17 points, not even close to what was expected of a perennial championship contender playing an opponent that had never even made it to a semifinal game before.

And to the 150 or so people who had jammed into Russ's Sports, Spirits -N- Food, that was a moral victory.

"This is a holiday," Koeneman said, shaking his ponytailed head happily. "This is bigger than the Super Bowl."

Indeed, it was the biggest crowd he'd seen at his hangout for Southwest Missouri fans since the last time baseball's St. Louis Cardinals made the playoffs. And for it to have been for a Bears game, nothing could have been sweeter than that for a member of SMS's class of 1980.

Well, actually, one thing could have. That would have been a win.

"But I think it's all we could have hoped for," he said, smiling. "We've been in the game the whole time."

Or, as another SMS alum, Eric Schultz, summed it up with a shout, a smile and a wild, happy gesture, delivered all at once: "We're playing Duke, for God's sake!"

 
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