ATLANTA (AP) -A tornado. A doubleheader. An improbable trip to the NCAA tournament.
Georgia completed its remarkable run through the Southeastern Conference tournament on Sunday, building a big lead in the first half and holding on to beat Arkansas 66-57 in the championship game, earning its first trip to the NCAAs since 2002.
The Bulldogs (17-16) became just the third team in the tournament history to win four games in four days – actually, two came on the same day, an impromptu bit of scheduling forced by a tornado that slammed into the Georgia Dome.
Georgia got to cut down the nets on the home court of Georgia Tech, its bitter in-state rival and the replacement venue for the tournament after the dome was struck Friday night.
Arkansas (22-11) beat Vanderbilt and regular-season champion Tennessee on its way to the final, earning its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
Terrance Woodbury scored 16 points and Georgia headed to the NCAAs for the first time since the scandalous era of former coach Jim Harrick, which landed the program on probation and prompted it to decline a certain postseason trip with a 20-win team in 2003.
Dennis Felton took over as coach, with a mandate to clean things up. But when the Bulldogs finished last in the SEC East this season, there was plenty of speculation he would be out of the job as soon as the team made its expected exit from the league tournament.
Nothing went as expected in Atlanta, however.
The devastating tornado, which rumbled over the Georgia Dome and wreaked havoc downtown, forced a postponement of Georgia’s quarterfinal game against Kentucky. Not only that, the tournament had to be moved to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of nearby Georgia Tech.
The revised schedule, which was vehemently opposed by Felton, forced the Georgia-Kentucky winner to play two games on Saturday. Amazingly, the Bulldogs knocked off the Wildcats for the first time ever in the tournament, then came back six hours later to beat SEC West champion Mississippi State.
Never showing any signs of fatigue, Georgia completed the run against Arkansas, racing to a 19-point lead and going on to their easiest victory of the weekend, leading all the way. The Bulldogs won their first three games by a total of 10 points with two of them decided in overtime.
“SEC champions!” Georgia’s Billy Humphrey said. “Never doubt us again.”
The Bulldogs started quick again, the third straight game in which they built a double-digit lead in the first half. Woodbury hit consecutive 3-pointers and tournament MVP Sundiata Gaines scored with a nifty move through the lane, putting Georgia up 28-9 just past the midway point of the opening half.
Arkansas cut the margin to 36-26 by halftime and closed to 56-53 – the closest the Razorbacks had been since the opening minutes – when Sonny Weems scored on a drive to the hoop.
Weems and Darian Townes led Arkansas with 17 points apiece.
Georgia, it seemed, was finally running out of gas. But the Bulldogs had come too far to let the second tournament championship in school history slip away.
Albert Jackson went in for a dunk with 2:51 remaining after a wild sequence in which Georgia missed twice but kept coming up with the loose balls. Humphrey sealed it with a 3, getting off the shot after running down most of the shot clock.
When senior Dave Bliss swatted away Arkansas’ final shot, the celebration began at a cozy arena that wasn’t even half-filled. Jackson jumped into Bliss’ arms. Jeremy Price carried a teammate around the court.
Instead of worrying about his job, Felton was the last to climb the ladder during the net-cutting ceremony. He waved the prized nylon above his head for the cheering Georgia fans. Then, the coach and his team hung around to watch the NCAA selection show on the video board hanging above the court.
With no way to accommodate all the fans who had tickets at the 9,191-seat coliseum, the SEC only let in those with working credentials, the bands and cheerleaders, and family and friends of the players.
Georgia had hardly any support at its first two games, but there must have been at least 2,000 wearing red and black on Sunday – more than half of the 3,700 in attendance.
“SEC! SEC! SEC!” they chanted as the final seconds ticked away.