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Josiah Harris and most of his classmates from Niagara Falls’ Gaskill Preparatory School have never been inside First Niagara Center, but they sat in the front row of the arena today, and from of the nation’s some elite college basketball players warm up for the national stage.

As Josiah and his friends filed into the auditorium for a special NCAA youth program Wednesday morning to watch the University of Dayton players practice, they gasped and cheered.

“This is awesome,” Josiah said.

About 2,000 Buffalo and Niagara Falls public school children were invited to the arena for an educational program put together in conjunction with the NCAA tournament by the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and the Buffalo Police Athletic League.

“Our main goal is to bring these kids an educational program in a setting they’ll never forget,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a member of the Buffalo Police Athletic League. “A lot of these kids see this building every day and have never been inside.”

Students heard programs about nutrition, healthy living and good decision making. Former Syracuse University basketball star and NBA veteran John Wallace and former Lasalle High School and University at Buffalo basketball star Modie Cox both gave motivational speeches.

“This is really cool and really inspiring,” said Nelitza Rivera, a seventh-grader at Hillery Park Elementary.

A particularly poignant moment came when Cox talked about how he overcame a drug addicted mother, absent father and prevalent racism to become a successful college graduate who has played professional basketball in Europe and Africa.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to tell these students I came from right where they’re standing and show them what is possible,” said Cox, who is now executive director of the Buffalo Police Athletic League. “These kids need to know what they can accomplish if they stay on the right path.”

A few lucky students even got to run drills on the gleaming arena floor, just minutes before NCAA tournament players took the court themselves to warm up for Thursday’s first championship sessions. Students also got to watch the University teams practice for about an hour before heading back to class.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids,” said John Briglio, dean of students at Lasalle Preparatory School in Niagara Falls. “It’s a chance for them to see in real life what we try to teach them about perseverance and what can happen when they work hard and focus their passion.”

Buffalo is the only NCAA host city in the country that puts together this type of youth event, Fitzpatrick said. It has grown from about 800 students since Buffalo first hosted the games in 2000.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com