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Players and fans alike got First Niagara Center warmed up Wednesday for the NCAA tournament today.

Fans scrambled for autographs as Syracuse Orange players left the court. Standout point guard Tyler Ennis was in particularly high demand.

Everyone was happy to oblige.

Even head coach Jim Boeheim mugged for fan photos, smiling to frenzied calls of “Coach! Coach! Coach!” from enamored fans.

Father-son bonding

Al Santiago and his young son, Nico, couldn’t get their hands on today’s pricey game tickets, so they came early Wednesday to claim front-row seats to the free practice.

Dad’s efforts paid off, with Nico all smiles.

“It’s crazy. I watch them on TV all the time and never imagined I’d be this close to them,” Nico said.

Today’s tickets might be selling for hundreds of dollars, but those two seats were priceless.

Setting priorities

With their beloved Ohio State Buckeyes practicing just minutes away, how could Sean and Quinn Gill spend the day at school?

The teenage brothers from Orchard Park played hooky Wednesday, snapping pictures of their team and exchanging high-fives.

“I’d gladly fail my classes for this,” said Quinn.

Madness veterans

For three decades, Rick Klapthor, of Erie, Pa., has been in the stands for the regional playoff games. And this year he didn’t have far to travel.

“Every year I pick a region and just go, whether it’s Texas or Kansas City,” he said. “It’s the best event there is. Why not be there live?”

Work hard, play hard

About 2,000 Buffalo and Niagara Falls public school students traded the classroom for First Niagara Center, learning about nutrition, healthy living and making good choices.

They heard motivational talks from National Basketball Association veteran John Wallace and former LaSalle High School star Modie Cox, watched the University of Dayton shoot some hoops and even got to take the court themselves.

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

Try getting that kind of reaction after a spelling test.

Play-by-play praise

Bob Kothe settled into a 100-level seat early Wednesday afternoon after sharing a chuckle with Verne Lundquist, the veteran play-by-play announcer who will be calling the games in Buffalo today for CBS and TBS.

Kothe grabbed autographs from Lundquist and his television sidekick, color analyst Bill Raftery, who were sitting courtside as the Dayton Flyers hoisted up three-pointers during their 40-minute practice session.

“They work good together. They know the game, too,” said Kothe.

Kothe, a retired City of Buffalo employee, has been around basketball for more than four decades as a coach and an official.

He still plays the game, too – at age 72.

Merchandise mania

An NCAA Final Four fleece will set you back $60, while sweatshirts are selling for $45 and T-shirts for $25 to $28 at the six merchandise counters and satellite stores inside First Niagara Center.

Trying to conserve chicken wing money?

There’s a winter hat for $22, a $15 coffee mug, $10 pennants and posters and a mini-basketball that costs $18.

A day to stay inside

Basketball fans will be greeted with gray skies, cold wind and snow showers today.

Temperatures will peak around 35 degrees with winds gusting as high as 33 mph.

But at least it’s not a blizzard, right?

“It’s not going to be the greatest day,” said Jon Hitchcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Of course, none of that will matter a bit to the fans whose teams win their games.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com