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Big Dance begins as Buffalo extends its warm embrace

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

Bone-chilling breezes off Lake Erie couldn’t put a freeze on the warm hospitality that has become a Buffalo tradition in its hosting of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. And out-of-town fans noticed.

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

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

All day inside the arena, basketball fans were whipped into a frenzy by their favorite teams.

David Bunn celebrated Dayton’s stunning upset of instate rival Ohio State with his brother, Ross, and friend Matt Larric.

“This is the best moment of my life,” David Bunn said.

Ross Bunn painted his face Dayton Flyers blue and red for the occasion. The trio sat a couple rows from the court and partied afterward inside the Buffalo Iron Works, where 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 in the group.

Greg and Wendy Slosser, of Tiffin, Ohio, were disappointed, too – but they planned to make the best of the loss by getting to the Anchor Bar early for some chicken wings.

And their trip already had been fruitful. They visited Niagara Falls earlier in the week.

“We always wanted to see the American Falls frozen, and we got to see that,” Greg Slosser said.

Outside the arena, fans were lashed all day by wind gusts, some 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 along 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.

NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said that there were no mechanical problems and that 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 one of only a few hiccups in what has become almost a routine event for the city, which is hosting the NCAA tourney 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.

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

The NCAA does not permit alcohol to be served in tournament venues, a prohibition that miffed many fans. “I think it’s ridiculous,” said Zach Dadson, of Niagara Falls, Ont., who was unaware of the regulation until he entered the arena Thursday morning.

By the time the first session of games was complete, many fans were eager for dinner and booze.

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 an arena shuttle – was booked between 5 and 7 p.m.

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

At the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery at Pearl and Seneca streets, 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 to 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.

While the first tournament game of the day, Dayton versus Ohio State, was well under way, plenty of ticket holders were just strolling into the arena or still leisurely knocking back beers at the downtown taverns.

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 started early at bars in the Cobblestone District, which were packed by 11 a.m.

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

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

Dick Heidrick, of Orchard Park, said the inflated rates were outrageous. “I really lucked out,” said Heidrick, who parked under the Niagara Thruway overpass. “It was $30 to $40 to park, and I saw that lot at $12.”

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

The group came in from Syracuse and was staying at the Homewood Suites on Dick Road.

The taxi ride from Cheektowaga cost them $40 – “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:

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