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GRIFFS INSPIRE NEW PASSION IN AUD CROWD

THAT NOISE you heard just before 9:30 Thursday night might have been the awakening of college basketball in Western New York.

Oh, lots of people follow the game around here. The problem is that usually you can't tear enough of them away from the Big East, ACC, Big Ten and NBA games on the tube to go out and pay money to watch a local game.

There have been exceptions -- a visit by Duke or Wake Forest or Syracuse to face Canisius -- but usually the attraction is the outlanders, not the hometown Golden Griffins.

Thursday night at Memorial Auditorium the attraction was the Griffs and their quest for a berth in the Final Four of the NIT. Some people like to look down their noses and say NIT stands for Not Important Tournament.

Well, getting to Monday's NIT semifinals was important enough for what seemed like the entire Canisius student body to charge the floor to embrace its players after the rousing 89-80 victory over a major conference opponent, Washington State of the Pac 10.

There were 9,065 tickets sold for the game in just three days, and the turnout of Canisius alumni had to be the largest in a couple of decades.

"Tonight made me proud to be wearing this ring," a local lawyer said, pointing to his class ring as he watched the wild postgame celebration on the floor.

Not only was this the most significant Canisius basketball victory since the 1963 Griffs reached the finals of the NIT, it was perhaps the most important local college game played in the Aud since Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy were playing in the Little Three 25 years ago.

What might have been keeping local college basketball fans home was the lack of any reward for showing up. Buy a ticket, drive through the snow, then hope Canisius would give a Duke or a Syracuse a game. Or else, the Griffs seemed to lose crucial conference games to a Northeastern, a Siena or a Manhattan when a good crowd showed up.

This time, the crowd was rewarded. There hasn't been this much noise in the Aud for a basketball game since the Braves left town.

"It was a good crowd," said Washington State coach Kevin Eastman. "They should do this every game as exciting a team as Canisius has."

The noise was deafening at times and the enthusiasm contagious.

Hometown guy Damone James ignited the crowd by sparking the Griffs to an early lead. Coach John Beilein and his players left the court at halftime with a 36-30 lead and thunderous applause. The roar kept up throughout the second half.

"Dee-fense, dee-fense," they cried when Washington State crept to within six and then within four as the game neared the five-minute mark. And the Griffs responded by holding on to their margin.

And the Griffs closed it out like troopers. They nailed 23 of 25 free throws in the second half, 22 in a row in one stretch.

The breathing room allowed Beilein to send James out for a final curtain call in his last home game in Buffalo and allowed senior walk-on John Gorman to make a cameo appearance he will always remember.

How confident were the Griffins?

Well, somebody thought enough of their chances to have a recording of "New York, New York" ready to play when the game was over.

During March Madness, there weren't many wackier or more lively places to be Thursday night than the Aud. Just maybe it will be habit-forming.

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