BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Three middle aged men wearing matching outfits stared at a television monitor, babbling obliviously among themselves. Behind them, in the stands of First Niagara Center, a game far more exciting than the one they were (poorly) officiating was reaching the moment of its highest drama.
The first 24 minutes of Saturday night's South Regional round of 32 game between third-seeded Syracuse and 11th-seeded Dayton were as ugly, dreary basketball as the college game is capable of. Early in the second half, the two teams had combined for 45 points, with only three more field goals than turnovers (18-15). Both teams were shooting below 33 percent. During one particularly amusing stretch in the first half, the ball made it to both ends of the court three times without anyone ever getting a shot off. When someone finally did, it was an airball. Everyone seemed to lack opposable thumbs.
So what could be better, on the heels of all this kitten punching than five minutes of dead air while referees reviewed a foul call? As the officials meandered -- and even Jim Boeheim looked bored -- and everyone twiddled their thumbs, a familiar refrain began to rumble from the rafters.
Let's go Flyers!
Let's go Flyers!
LET'S GO FLYERS!
It was only 20 seconds or so, but for those 20 seconds, we weren't in Buffalo. We were in Dayton, among the Red Scare, amid one of the most underrated fan bases in all of college basketball. It took everyone by surprise. It jolted the sleepy building. It sort of changed everything.
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From the moment that it became clear that Syracuse was going to have a Top 25 team this season, it was obvious that on March 20 and (probably) March 22 of this year, the Orange would be playing their NCAA tournament games in Buffalo, just two hours west on I-90. This is how the NCAA, always looking for a way to sell more tickets, has done it for almost a decade now; as long as it's not your home arena, they'll do anything they can do get a team to play close to home. It's why Wisconsin is playing in Milwaukee, why Florida is in Orlando, why Duke is in Raleigh. (Well, was in Raleigh.) Syracuse is a classic college basketball school with a devoted fanbase centrally located in the state of New York. Of course they were gonna pack the place. Every other school here, every matchup in the arena, was going to be a sideshow, the game Orange fans maybe stuck around to watch, if they weren't ready to hit the bars on Lake Erie yet.
But you could tell, from the very first minutes of Thursday's opener between Ohio State and Dayton, that the Orange faithful weren't going to be the only ones making noise this weekend. If you want a dominant home-court advantage in any postseason tournament in college basketball, Dayton is not a team you want in your quadrant. Quietly, the Flyers have one of the most loyal, impressive traveling band of supporters in the sport, something you don't know if you've never seen them in person. Last year, at the Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I watched Dayton lose to Butler in the quarterfinals and the building nearly empty out when it was over; the subsequent St. Joseph's-Xavier game was basically just an afterthought.
There are a few college fan bases like this, smaller schools you don't realize are capable of taking over a place until it's almost too late. Creighton. Virginia Commonwealth. Wichita State. New Mexico. But I'd argue that no group is more crazed, with so historically little to be crazed about, than Dayton fans. They'll knock you over if you're not ready.
First Niagara Center, packed with 'Cuse fans fully expecting another laugher like their Round of 64 win over Western Michigan, was not ready. So when the chant -- which had been going on all game but had not taken over until this moment of referee-foisted repose -- blasted throughout the building, you could sense, for the first time, legitimate fear. Within seconds, the dominant orange-clad screamers drowned out the Flyers chant with a hearty "LET'S GO ORANGE!" -- the first time that phrase had broken out all night. It was the most deafening noise of the weekend.
After that, a dull, gross game pepped up considerably, and what had been an eyesore became one of the most compelling of the whole tournament. Suddenly, the stakes felt higher for every person in the building. Syracuse and its fans realized that they were in danger of continuing their late-season slide into one of their more disappointing losses in recent memory. Dayton and its devout, long-suffering fans realized that elusive first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years was at their fingertips. The void created by the five-minute replay prattle was filled, with a gasp, by a building that rediscovered the ability to shake. A Syracuse team that hasn't really been right in more than a month looked scared. The boring game was in the past. The whole place snapped to attention. LET'S GO ORANGE. You couldn't hear Dayton fans anymore; that tends to happen when 16,000 people are yelling at 2,000.
But there was undeniably an echo.
Down by 1 when the delay happened, Syracuse went on a run, but Dayton never wavered. The Flyers fans grew louder and louder and louder, until, with 48 seconds left, this happened:
Jordan Sibert's lunatic 27-foot 3-pointer with less than a minute left gave the Flyers a lead they would not relinquish. Syracuse went 0 for 10 from beyond the arc for the game, culminating in a Tyler Ennis miss as time expired. Dayton's players exploded onto the court. This school that loves its college basketball so much at last had its moment, on the road, among people who never saw them coming. There were tens of thousands of disappointed Syracuse fans at the First Niagara Center on Saturday night. But the building was far from silent. I can still hear the echo.
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