Watching his teammates practice jump shots in Winona State's McCown Gymnasium, junior guard Jonte Flowers stretches his 6'4' frame over a few rows of bleachers and tries to explain what I can expect from the Warrior fans who will take their places in the arena in just a few hours.
'It's crazy,' he says. 'The students will line up on that sideline and harass the other team during warm-ups. This place just gets packed and loud.'
Flowers glances at me sideways and adds, 'It's pretty fun.'
Fun pervades the Winona State basketball program these days. With 47 straight victories and the 2006 NCAA Division II national championship trophy in the lobby, the Warriors are the heroes of Winona, Minn., a city of just over 25,000 across the Mississippi from La Crosse. For a game at McCown against Nebraska's Wayne State College two weeks ago, they draw 4,487 fans.
'We never sell out,' says Winona State sports information director Michael Herzberg with a wink. 'If you show up, we'll pack you in.'
One big reason for the attraction is the performance of some Madison La Follette alums. Former Lancers Flowers and senior guard Quincy Henderson are starters while junior Curtrel Robinson, who convinced his pals to join him at Winona, is academically ineligible this season.
Henderson and Flowers (along with Jonte's brother Michael, now a starting guard for the Badgers) starred on La Follette's 2002 state championship team. Both began their college careers at other schools.
Jonte was named all-state in 2003, but didn't attract much Division I interest and decided to walk on to the UW football team.
'About halfway through spring football season in 2004, I decided I missed playing basketball,' Flowers says. 'At that time, Winona had been recruiting Curtrel, and our old high school coach gave [Winona State coach Mike Leaf] a call and we came down for a visit. I liked everything I saw.'
Henderson headed to Division I Creighton in Omaha, where he nursed a few injuries and never got into a rhythm with the team. After a couple of years, he decided to join his former teammates at Winona.
'In Division I, the athletes are obviously a little bigger and a little better,' says Henderson. 'But it's no less competitive here. We fight it out on a daily basis.'
Winona State's public address announcer, Bryce Wilkinson, is easy to spot at the McCown scorer's table with his snow-white beard and headband. He's in full voice for the Wayne State game.
'Swissshhh!' he hisses after Flowers nails a three-pointer from the corner in the first half. 'That basket gives Jonte Flowers 1,002 career points! Jonte Flowers, ladies and gentlemen! Jonnn-tayyy Flowers!'
Flowers is one of three Warriors starters to hit the 1,000-point milestone, and the Winona State student section, dubbed the McCown Maniacs, is eating it up. As Flowers predicted, they're lined up just a couple feet off the sideline, giving the Wayne State players hell. A kid dressed as Santa Claus with floral-print swim trunks is belly bumping a classmate with a big purple W painted on his face.
The Warriors take a 48-36 lead to the locker room at halftime but squander it in the second half as the Wayne State shooters find their rhythm. With just over a minute to play, Winona State's lead has been whittled to just five. Flowers misses a three-pointer, and the Warriors hustle back to set up on defense.
Flowers steps off his man a little and the Wayne State point guard passes the ball his way. In a flash, Flowers steals the pass and streaks uncontested to the hoop, where he throws down a reverse jam to seal the win.
I think back on something Flowers told me before the game: 'We're the team that has what it takes to finish the game, no matter what. We could be down, but nobody's panicking and everybody's focused on what we have to do to come through in the clutch.'
The same could be said of the Wisconsin Badgers this season, a team that also includes a former La Follette player named Flowers. Jonte follows the Badgers' fortunes and speaks to his brother Michael a couple times a week.
'We understand what's going on in each other's season and how sometimes it's frustrating to be getting everybody's best shot,' he says. 'We always had the dream of winning the national championship, and that dream came true for me, and hopefully it will for Michael this year.'