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Time out for hoops fans Visitors shop, dine and take in the sights as sunny weather prevails

During their one-day lull without basketball Saturday, those decked out in black and gold, or orange and navy, or whatever, carved out as many strategies as the coaches of their beloved teams.

Some planted themselves on stools -- to watch even more basketball.

Others kept moving. For them, Saturday was not a day to sit around but to walk off the wings they devoured at the Anchor Bar.

Some shopped.

And a few checked out a popular University Heights diner featured on the Food Network.

Pat Manley of Syracuse longed for down time after attending all four of Friday's games, the first tipping off at 12:15 p.m. and the last one at 9:55 p.m. So he met up with friends at Amherst Pizza & Ale House.

"It's a recovery day, if you want to call eating wings and drinking beer all afternoon a recovery," said Manley, 24, a Syracuse University graduate student.

Spotting Manley was easy. He was the one with the giant photo of head coach Jim Boeheim's head. The large cutout -- dubbed "Big Boeheim" by Manley -- wasn't allowed in HSBC's seating areas on Friday. But the roughly 5-by-3-foot foam board got a welcome reception in the Amherst establishment.

Niagara Falls, as expected, was the popular destination for many of Buffalo's visitors.

"This is enjoyable," said John Latocha, a retired coal miner from Mannington, W.Va., as he stood near the mighty cataracts. "It's a nice way to spend the day off. A lot of the people we know who came up were going to do this."

Latocha is a Mountaineers fan who made the five-hour drive to Buffalo from his home north of West Virginia University.

While the Amherst Pizza & Ale House put on a full-court press for Orange fans, the area's natural wonder lured fans in all team colors -- well, at least those whose teams won Friday.

Florida State fans were scarce Saturday, as were Vermont boosters, after their teams lost their NCAA tournament first-round games at HSBC Arena on Friday. So not a lot of garnet and gold or green and gold could be spotted around Western New York.

Although Gonzaga University won its Friday game, not many of its faithful made the trip from the Spokane, Wash., campus, some 2,320 miles west of Buffalo.

So Buffalo looked like a three-team town Saturday.

Syracuse fans are everywhere, with more than a few living here, or just down the Thruway, so the Orange-clad fans swamp the other school backers in numbers. But it was also hard to miss the black and gold Missouri sweatshirts and the gold and blue jackets of West Virginia, whether on the observation deck at Niagara Falls State Park or area restaurants and bars.

"Mother Nature at its best," Levi Coolley, 31, a Missouri Tigers fan from Columbia, Mo., said as he looked upon Niagara Falls for the first time.

Nearby, Latocha and his wife, Linda, were talking about their trip to the American side of the falls some 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then, for the better, the two said.

"We were just talking about how much it's changed, how much nicer this side is now than when we were up here a long time ago," Linda Latocha said.

The Latochas haven't limited their strolls to Niagara Falls.

They walked around downtown Buffalo for more than an hour, impressed by the architecture of the older buildings.

College students enjoyed looking at downtown's architecture as well.

Matt Wilson, 19, a freshman geography student at the University of Missouri, said he enjoyed walking around downtown.

He's a member of the Missouri band, which visited Niagara Falls and the Anchor Bar earlier in the week.

On Saturday, the band boarded the bus for a trip to the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga. "We thought it was a great idea," said Michele Curry, 20, a junior studying finance at Missouri.

She bought boots at Old Navy. The irony was not lost on her that she bought boots on a sunny day in Buffalo while snow was falling in Missouri.

While the students headed to the mall, Nazareth Victoria, who lives outside Pittsburgh, took a cab with his friends to the Lake Effect Diner in University Heights.

The Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" put the spotlight on the Lake Effect Diner in November in a segment Victoria watched.

His visit was everything he hoped for.

"It was awesome, an excellent place," Victoria said.

He ordered two meals for himself: beef on weck and stuffed potato pancakes.

"It was 11:30. I had breakfast and lunch," he said.

Like a lot of fans, Victoria bought tickets for the tournament months before knowing which teams would play here. He and his friends traveled to Buffalo for the sport -- not to root for a specific team.

This weekend marks Phil Pergola's fourth trip to Buffalo for a NCAA tournament.

And unlike some previous NCAA tournaments in Buffalo, Saturday's sunny weather helped people wanting to take in the other sights in the region.

That hasn't always been the case.

"The first time we came here was the wettest snow I'd ever experienced in my life," said Pergola, a high school athletic director and basketball coach from Monongahela, Pa. "This is like summer."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

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