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The Gallagher Center was rocking Saturday night, even though the 2,400-seat building was just over half full for Niagara's dramatic 86-85 win over Rider.

"It was great to have a crowd like that. It really helped," NU coach Joe Mihalich said. "I was wondering what it would take to get people in here."

Ah, the question Big 4 officials constantly ask: Where are Western New York's basketball fans?

After 20 years as a player and assistant coach at La Salle, in the hoop hotbed of Philadelphia, Mihalich is learning first-hand that's a good question.

Aside from St. Bonaventure's built-in Olean audience, college basketball's fan base in this area remains largely a small, hardcore group. Consider:

St. Bonaventure's per-game attendance of 5,055 heading into tonight's Reilly Center contest against La Salle (7:30, Radio 95.7 FM) is more than the combined average of Niagara, Canisius and the University at Buffalo.

Bona, Niagara (1,217) and UB (1,754) have averages virtually identical to last year. Attendance at Canisius games, however, has dropped precipitously. The Griffs are down 2,313 per opening to 1,695, largely because of a lag in season-ticket sales at Marine Midland Arena.

Area fans seem to be completely rejecting the dingy Koessler Center. Canisius has averaged just 616 fans for its five games there -- the lowest figure for an on-campus facility in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Bad weather and a four-win season has made UB's jump to the Mid-American Conference a wash at the box office. The Bulls, in fact, are second-last in the MAC in attendance.

Crowd counts are becoming a greater concern because of the return of the MAAC Tournament next month and the city's NCAA regional in March, 2000 at Marine Midland Arena.

The MAAC is committed to returning in 2001, but the NCAAs are not. It's reasonable to assume both entities will rethink the Buffalo market if sales fall flat.

"This is a real key time because of the NCAA coming here next year," admitted Niagara athletic director Mike Hermann. "We'll give college basketball an exposure in our marketplace that maybe hasn't been there before."

Niagara fans have had more comfort this year, thanks to a $1.3 million renovation of the Gallagher Center that includes chairback seating and other amenities. The Purple Eagles had a sellout for opening night against UB and hope for another on Senior Night Feb. 15 against Canisius.

"The renovation has been terrific," Hermann said. "A lot of criticism about coming had focused on our facility.

"We wanted to get a feel of what the market is about. How do we package and promote games to get 10 full houses a year? Ten great houses here is not unrealistic because we have an appropriately sized building."

Canisius, meanwhile, does not. The Koessler Center seats only 1,800 and has virtually no fan amenities. Marine Midland Arena, however, is way too cavernous with a 19,500-seat capacity.

Canisius is in the preliminary stages of planning renovations at Koessler within the next 2-3 years that would include chairback seating and an increased capacity of around 2,500.

"Niagara did a heck of a job making their place a much more liveable facility," said Canisius athletic director Dan Starr. "I'm enthused about what we'll be doing. We can make a determined effort to sell season tickets at Koessler if we have chairback seats. It's just not comfortable enough for people having bleachers."

Two years ago, the Griffs averaged more than 5,800 per game and had the second-biggest increase in the country. But Arena season ticket sales have dropped from 4,200 two years ago to less than 1,500 this season, largely because of the absence of marquee non-conference opponents.

The number could improve next season, as Canisius will play Xavier and Niagara is expected to play St. John's downtown.

"Those are good games to have," Starr said. "That's kind of the bait we hold out to draw more additional people."

Canisius and Niagara attendance is not out of line with the rest of the MAAC. The Griffs' Arena average of 3,043 is better than every school except Siena, which is averaging 5,841 at Pepsi Arena in Albany.

St. Bonaventure benefits from a season-ticket base of about 2,500 and by far the area's best student support. The Bonnies have three attractive games left: There are fewer than 200 tickets left for Saturday afternoon's game against Temple, while a Feb. 16 visit from Rhode Island and the Feb. 27 game with St. Joseph's figure to be good draws.

The Bonnies are fourth in the A-10 in attendance, behind only Dayton (11,662), Temple (7,975) and UMass (6,825).

UB, meanwhile, has only 450 season ticket-holders, a far cry from the 14,000 it has for football. The Bulls hope to sell at least 1,000 next year thanks to a visit by North Carolina.

UB drew a season-high 3,018 for MAC leader Miami of Ohio Jan. 8 on a brutal winter night. The Jan. 6 game against Bowling Green attracted just 760, less than half of what the Bulls figured, because of more bad weather.

MAC attendance is vastly higher than what UB saw in the Mid-Continent Conference. Five schools average more than 5,000 per game, led by Miami's 5,829.

UB and Northern Illinois (1,704) are the only MAC schools under 2,100. They meet tonight (8, Radio 1520) in DeKalb, Ill.

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