‘Milan miracle’ leaves its mark 60 years later

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MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Sometimes a team finds itself on the wrong side of history. Call them Goliath, call them a team from South Bend in the film “Hoosiers,” or call them what they were: the Muncie Central Bearcats, immortalized in arguably the greatest sports story to come out of Indiana.

It’s been 60 years since the Bearcats took the court at what was then Butler Fieldhouse to face Milan, the team from a 161-student school that made an improbable run to the single-class state title game. Central played the foil, the heavy favorite that couldn’t stop the magical season as Bobby Plump’s 14-footer in the waning seconds pushed those teams and that 32-30 game into the realm of lore.

Leon Agullana started that game and played the majority of it, and as he looked back on those 60 years that seem to have gone by so fast for him, he wanted to make one point about it.

“We were the bigger school, but they had been in the final four the year before and we had not,” Agullana told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1g4fdcA ), noting the Indians deployed a critical tactic to limit his Bearcats.

“They held the ball. We had a high scoring average and there we were at 30 points, 28 at that time. And it was different. About 14,500 was for Milan and 1,000 for Muncie. It had a different atmosphere.”

That night is a topic Agullana frequently gets asked about, and despite coming out on the losing side, there’s no difficulty in talking about it. He said he grew close with members of that Milan team, including Plump, and still talks to them.

Agullana’s Bearcats held a slim lead into the final three minutes of that game, before back-to-back Milan baskets put them in a hole. Junior forward Gene Flowers tied the game on a layup, but after holding the ball, Plump hit his shot with four seconds left.

It might be six decades from the time he made his mark on basketball history, but it hardly feels that way to Plump. He’s been talking about the shot, the team, that season since then.

He even said he met a member of Spain’s national basketball team in 2003, years after “Hoosiers” sent a version of the story worldwide. The player said the movie, one of the key characters Jimmy Chitwood (loosely based on Plump) and looking up the story behind it was a factor in finding his way into the sport.

When Plump thought of that Central team, he recalls the classic mold of a favorite: big, strong and talented.

“I was very much aware of the reputation, No. 1, of Muncie Central,” said Plump, who added that night was one of his worst shooting performances in that tournament. “They were big, they were rugged, they could shoot, rebound. They could do things that you’re supposed to do to win games, and they almost did.”

And that’s from a man whose team had to knock off a Crispus Attucks squad that featured sophomore guard and future basketball hall of famer Oscar Robertson during the tournament run.

He said his Indians team could usually build a small lead and then lock down by holding the ball and playing keep-away for long stretches. But after falling behind by five, the Bearcats actually rallied back against such tactics and took a lead.

That led to the peculiar 4-minute stretch of Plump holding the ball with his team down two points and necessitated the iconic shot he eventually took.

That moment left its own kind of mark for Central and, in some ways, the town.

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