Try as they might, the folks in charge of conducting Winona State basketball games can't squeeze 4,000 people into McCown Gymnasium. "Capacity is 3,200 or so, and everyone else is standing or peeking around a corner," athletic director Larry Holstad said.

What has been discovered is that fewer than 4,000 people can create the noise of a full house at Xcel Energy Center, if everyone shrieks loud enough. That was the case again last week, when Winona State qualified for its third consecutive trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight with a 68-60 victory over Northern State.

The bedlam has been building for three seasons -- inspired by outstanding talent, tremendous effort and a sideshow that includes a student arriving from the stands during a second-half timeout and dancing energetically to "Cotton Eyed Joe."

The student is Brent Maxwell, a junior from Stillwater and a starting outfielder on the baseball team.

"He did it a couple of years ago, just for laughs, and I think he thought that would be the end of it," John Smith said. "People wouldn't let him stop. He's his own one-man show now."

Smith came to Winona State for the start of the 2003-04 school year. He was a 6-8 center from Johnsburg, Ill. Northwestern wanted him to walk on. Several midmajors made vague promises of scholarships.

"I got really sick of being tossed around," Smith said. "You could hear in the coaches' voices. ... It's a business for them. It has to be, because it's their job on the line. But that's not what I was looking for.

"I came to Winona, and it felt right. I knew I could be happy here."

Coach Mike Leaf had Travis Leech, an outstanding center, returning for his senior year. Smith told Leaf on arrival at Winona that he didn't want to redshirt as a freshman. After a week of practicing against Leech, Smith came to his coach: "I'm terrible. I can't play man-to-man defense. I want to redshirt."

He took over as the center for the 2004-05 season. Jonte Flowers, a 6-5 guard, also arrived as a transfer from Wisconsin (where he had been on a football scholarship).

The Warriors won the Northern Sun at 12-2, finished 24-11 overall and also won a North Central Regional game. And then the fun started:

The Warriors were national champions in 2006. They lost to Barton in the title game in 2007. They are going back to Springfield, Mass., this week for another Elite Eight, starting Wednesday against Grand Valley State -- a team that defeated Michigan State in an exhibition game in November.

Winona has won 102 games over the past three seasons. They are 92-2 since losing to Bemidji State on Jan. 7, 2006.

One loss came to St. Thomas this December. The other was the excruciating collapse in the final minute against Barton in the 2007 title game.

Smith was asked about the Barton loss last week and said: "No matter what happens, it's still a game. You always have to put that No. 1 -- it's a game. You're not going to win everything.

"For some people who follow a team, it's almost like a death. It's like they are afraid to talk to you. We won 57 in a row before that. We can lose one. We'll be all right."

Smith's perspective should not be mistaken for a casual approach to competition. He rebounds, defends and battles for offensive position fiercely.

The coaches association (NABC) named him the Division II Player of the Year in 2007, and there's a strong chance he will repeat that honor when it is announced this week.

Smith has averaged 17.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and three blocks. More than huge numbers, it's an impact on the entire game that coaches see from Smith when voting such an honor to Smith.

Smith will get a degree in physical education. Coaching is a possibility, but not right away.

"I'm going to try my best to play afterwards," he said. "I've put in a lot of time, a lot of practice, so I'd like to make a little career out of it.

"Jonte Flowers -- he's a great guy, a great player ... maybe we could wind up on the same team."

Smith paused, said, "Do you think the Timberwolves might need some help?" and then he laughed.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. •