Patti LaBelle sounded politely miffed shortly after Philly finished second on last night's finale of Clash of the Choirs.

After initially asserting, "It was a ripoff -- somebody stole it from me," she backed off a bit.

But only a bit.

Michael Bolton and Kelly Rowland, who also led choirs in the competition, told LaBelle her Philadelphia choir should have won, she said. "Michael, he's in here cheering me now."

Whether it was the Curse of Billy Penn's hat, or a case of a Midwestern pop star outpolling an Eastern diva, Philadelphia came up short last night on NBC.

America's votes tallied in favor of Nick Lachey's Cincinnati singers, who hummed and buzzed "Flight of the Bumblebee" Wednesday night. They won $250,000 for the Children's Hospital of Cincinnati.

LaBelle's Philadelphia troupe, which impressed viewers for three nights straight with its impassioned performances and vocal gymnastics, was runnerup, winning $50,000 for the University of Pennsylvania 's Abramson Cancer Center and its With Our Voices outreach program.

Mostly, though, the ever-pleasant Patti preferred to sound a positive note.

Would she demand a rematch? "Tomorrow, I'm going to say congratulations to my boy," she said.

"I'm still a winner, you know what I mean? I'm not taking anything away from Nick Lachey ... I'm 63, he's about 2. ... It's called Clash of the Choirs, not Clash of the Popularity," she said.

Also winning $50,000 were Blake Shelton's Oklahomans, Bolton's New Haven, Connecticut yankees, and Rowland's Houstonians.

LaBelle's group did Philly proud, rising from a squad of amateurs to a national stage, and, as LaBelle announced last night, a spot in her New Year's Eve show at Caesars Atlantic City.

The Phillies also invited them to sing at a game in March, she said in the phone interview after the show..

As recounted on film clips last night, her singers survived auditions in which LaBelle sometimes hid under her wide-brimmed hat, fanning herself to keep from laughing.

But under LaBelle's "boot camp" tutelage, these strangers turned into a professional-sounding ensemble whose intensity reflected their leader's.

The cause was personal not only for LaBelle, who lost four sisters to cancer, but to one of the Philly singers, Rachael Sutliff, a survivor of stage-four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The series was rollercoaster quick by network standards, launched and landed in just four nights. And it was an emotional ride for many contestants. After singing lead on "I'll Stand by You" Tuesday night, a choked-up J'onett DeVeaubray of Philadelpha said that ever since she was a little girl, she dreamed of having LaBelle as a mentor.

"This is the most blessed experience I have ever had!" said another woman after her turn to sing lead vocals last night. "Philadelpha, P-A, it has been an honor!"

LaBelle gave at least a half-dozen voices a solo shot, without worrying who had pop-star looks. She had hoped people would "vote for what they hear, not what they see, because that's prejudice."

"I didn't know they could sing lead like that, but they killed it," she said.

Team LaBelle also showed chutzpah befitting a diva, when they dared to sing "We Are the Champions" before the results were announced.

Reality didn't live up to those lyrics, though, as Jessica Simpson's ex got to celebrate as the cameras faded off the Philly flock.

"I am very very happy because this is going to make me even a stronger woman," LaBelle said afterward. "... I'm blessed. This didn't make me a loser. It made me a winner."