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Big Dance begins as Buffalo extends its warm embrace

March Madness roared into Buffalo on Thursday, delivering a plenty of hoopla and a boatload of business for area bars, restaurants, cab drivers and parking lot owners.

Not even the bone-chilling weather could put a freeze on the warm hospitality that has become a Buffalo tradition in hosting a subregional of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Mark and Dave Goricki, brothers from Sterling Heights, Mich., discovered it firsthand in the morning when a stranger gave them a ride to the game and even showed them the local food truck specials at Lloyd Taco Truck.

“That says a lot about your community,” Dave Goricki said.

Inside First Niagara Center, basketball fans were whipped into a frenzy by their favorite teams.

“This is the best moment of my life,” said David Bunn, celebrating Dayton’s stunning upset of instate rival Ohio State.

Bunn and his brother, Ross, who painted his face Dayton Flyers blue and red for the occasion, sat a couple rows from the court and partied afterward inside Buffalo Iron Works.

David Bunn was still fretting about Aaron Craft’s last-second shot that would have won it for Ohio State.

“I thought that was in. My heart dropped. My heart hit the floor,” he said.

The loss stung Ohio State fans hard.

One of them stormed out of the arena and threw his ticket into the wind.

Another group from Columbus, Ohio, decided to trek back home immediately, rather than stick around.

“You lose interest after your team loses,” said Dan Kraft, who was flying back on a private plane with four other people.

Outside, fans were lashed by wind gusts of more than 35 mph.

“Turn the wind down,” urged Greg Deerhake of Marblehead, Ohio.

The stiff breezes on the first day of spring served as yet another reminder of just how long this winter has been.

“That wind was howling, and that’s saying something, because we’re from Oswego,” said Eben Norfleet, who walked down Main Street with his son, Preston, following Syracuse’s romp over Western Michigan in the second game of the first session.

The pair ducked into Ellicott Square to seek some relief from the cold and grab a beef on weck at Charlie the Butcher.

Eight of Buffalo’s food trucks were lined up in a great spot along Main Street, near Exchange Street. But the food trucks attracted relatively few customers considering the crowds, as many fans simply sought shelter.

“Weather is a factor in a lot of these things,” said Brenden Haggerty, owner of The Whole Hog. “If it were nice out, people would be walking here, walking to Canalside. But people are beelining it to get inside somewhere.”

A crush of fans – many of them wearing Syracuse orange – began streaming from First Niagara Center with 8 minutes still left in Syracuse’s romp over Western Michigan.

The Metro Rail stop closest to the arena was jampacked with riders by 4:50 p.m., and stood motionless for about 6 minutes, apparently because so many people were aboard that the doors weren’t able to close.

Rolland LeFevre, of Derby, and Joe Baker, of Buffalo, were among several riders who jumped off. “I asked somebody where the shuttle to Chippewa was, and they said, ‘You’re better off with a trolley.’ Yeah right,” Baker said.

Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said there were no mechanical problems, and the Metro Rail handled the throngs of people as well as could be expected.

“To my knowledge, there was no mechanical problem,” Hartmayer said. “It was capacity, and people just have to squeeze in a bit.”

The brief delay was about the only hiccup in what has become almost a routine event for the city, which is hosting the NCAA tournament games for the fifth time since 2000.

LeFevre and Baker hoofed up Main Street and veered into Archer Restaurant, where a line of other fans followed suit.

LeFevre and Baker snagged one of the last available tables. Others were told they needed to have made a reservation.

Fans were eager for dinner and booze: Alcohol has been banned at First Niagara Center by the NCAA during the tournament.

Benjamin Rydzik, manager at Soho Burger Bar on West Chippewa Street, said his restaurant – one of nine bars and restaurants in the Chippewa entertainment district running a shuttle to and from the arena – was booked between 5 and 7 p.m.

For those without reservations, the restaurant opened its patio, equipped with heaters.

At Pearl Street Grill & Brewery on Seneca Street, even before the game ended, there was an hour wait at the popular downtown venue. The multistory restaurant was directing people to its buffet or the deli in the basement to satisfy hungry customers.

Earlier in the day, the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Western New York held a bash inside Pan-American Grill & Brewery, and several area bars and restaurants were showing their support for the Orange with banners, window paintings and drink specials, including the newly opened Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, whose sister restaurant in Syracuse is a long-standing hangout for Orange fans.

The bar opened at 9:30 a.m. with a bar menu for the early birds and had a steady crowd until shortly before the Syracuse game started.

The first tournament game of the day, Dayton versus Ohio State, was well under way, but there were plenty of ticket-holders strolling in late or still leisurely knocking back beers at the downtown bars.

What gives? The game between Ohio State and Dayton turned out to be an exciting upset.

Many of the ticket holders for Thursday’s first session were Syracuse fans, who cared little about any other game except the one played by their beloved Orange.

So instead of watching Ohio State and Dayton from their seats in the arena – where beer wasn’t being sold – Syracuse fans sought refuge in a nice warm bar, like The Liberty Hound.

“It’s like going to see the Rolling Stones and the warm-up band is playing,” said John Krouse, of East Aurora, who was sipping a beer, “so we blew them off.”

Festivities also started early at bars in the Cobblestone District, which were packed by 11 a.m. as ticket holders stopped for drinks before entering the booze-free arena.

The bar at Lagerhaus 95 in the Cobblestone District was so packed around 11:30 a.m. that two staff members could not get through the crowd in the lobby to drop of new beer kegs.

“You might as well just open them here and start serving them out the door,” one patron said.

Those who traveled downtown by car were greeted by parking rates usually reserved for big cities like Toronto and New York.

Some lots went as high as $40, $50 and $60 – although prices fluctuated throughout the day, and some lots could be found for as low as $8 for the day.

So you didn’t like paying $30 or $40 to park downtown for the tournament games, huh?

Syracuse fans Todd Freeman, Brian Normoyle and Steve Henderson found an alternative: They took a cab.

The group came in from Syracuse and was staying at the Homewood Suites on Dick Road near Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The taxi ride from Cheektowaga cost them $40.

It may have been a little pricey, but no one had to worry about counting beers.

“The $40 was a bargain,” Henderson said, “considering no one has to drive.”

News Staff Reporters Jay Rey, Tiffany Lankes, Denise Jewell Gee and Aaron Besecker contributed to this report. email: