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NCAA madness marches into Buffalo

March Madness blew into Buffalo last Thursday, with Mother Nature adding her own 50-mph gusts for good measure.

Last weekend, eight collegiate men’s basketball teams battled for a chance to be part of the “Sweet Sixteen” under the roof of First Niagara Center as our city proudly hosted the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament.

As the tournament began, 68 teams had hopes of winning a national championship. All but one ultimately will have their dream denied.

Sabres fans would have had a difficult time recognizing their arena; it was electric with anticipation as the field was ready to begin getting whittled down. Per NCAA regulations, much of the paraphernalia that would otherwise identify the arena as the home of the Buffalo Sabres was covered with NCAA banners, and the basketball court that covered the ice displayed the NCAA logo in the center.

The arena was filled with spirited fans of every stripe. All sorts of team gear could be spotted: body paint, spiked hair, mammoth pictures of fans’ favorite players and NCAA attire galore. There were many teams represented in the stands who weren’t competing here: Duke, Michigan and plenty of University at Buffalo, Canisius College and Niagara University gear, too. Far outnumbering all the rest, however, were fans adorned in Syracuse orange. Given that Syracuse University is a 2½-hour drive down the Thruway – and the closest thing we have to a premiere college basketball team – it felt like they had “home court” advantage.

With perennial basketball powerhouses in Ohio State, Syracuse and Connecticut on the docket, exciting games were almost a sure thing.

The first round of the tournament began with Ohio State vs. the University of Dayton, which turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament. Dayton, down one, hit a last-second shot with less than four seconds on the clock to upset Ohio State and break plenty of brackets before 2 p.m. the first day. The next game provided a Carrier Dome-like atmosphere for Syracuse. Western Michigan came into the First Niagara Center with hopes of upsetting the Orange. It was not to be. Syracuse provided Orange fans with a blowout victory, leaving many in the crowd happy and excited. The next game, St. Joseph’s University versus the University of Connecticut, was another spectacular game. UConn was down at halftime but rallied back to take St. Joe’s to overtime and then take the lead. UConn would eventually win in overtime but not without a fight from St. Joe’s. The last game of the day posed the No. 2 seed Villanova against No. 15 Milwaukee. Villanova took control early and never let up, cruising to a big victory.

On Saturday, Syracuse played Dayton and Villanova played UConn. Alas, Syracuse’s hopes of moving on in the tournament were dashed by a combination of poor shooting and the Dayton Flyers’ strong defense. The Orange ended their season in a 55-53 loss. Villanova lost to UConn, 77-65, due to a spectacular performance by UConn point guard Shabazz Napier.

With fans from all over the country coming to the Buffalo Niagara region to cheer on their teams, the NCAA tournament was a boon for the Western New York economy and a big win for basketball-loving Buffalonians. Given the positive comments shared by many out-of-town guests who came in for the tournament, hopes are high that the NCAA Tournament Planning Committee will once again select Buffalo as a preferred site in future years.

Let the madness continue!

Wesley Watson is a junior at Lancaster High School.