1990 team proves UGA can win championship in basketball

It remains one of the greatest moments and most incredible scenes in the history of Stegeman Coliseum. Georgia’s Neville Austin, a 6-foot-10 center and career 60 percent free-throw shooter, stepped to the line with five seconds remaining and the scored tied against a mighty LSU team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Jackson.

Austin made the first one, missed the second, and the Tigers’ 40-foot try at the buzzer was no good as the Bulldogs held on for an 86-85 victory.

Pandemonium ensued as most of the sellout crowd of 10,400 poured over press row and the scorer’s tables and instantly covered the court for a celebration the likes of which hasn’t been seen before or since. A lot of people have forgotten, but games remained against Tennessee and Auburn. But everybody knew that the LSU game was the one Georgia needed to accomplish the unthinkable. And, indeed, when they beat Auburn a week later, the Bulldogs secured the school’s first — and only — SEC regular-season championship.

That was Feb. 25, 1990. That team will be honored on the occasion of its 25th anniversary before Saturday’s game against Missouri.

“They’re a great part of our history, and we’re excited to be able to honor them and have them back,” current Georgia coach Mark Fox said Friday. “Coach (Hugh) Durham will be at practice (Friday), and he and I have had a great relationship. That’s evidence it can be done.”

That’s the other side of that incredible feat a quarter of a century ago. Georgia hasn’t been able to duplicate the accomplishment in the 82-year history of its association with the SEC. And it’s not going to happen again this year.

Kentucky, as per usual, has no peer in the league. The Wildcats (28-0, 15-0 SEC) will clinch their 46th SEC championship with a win over Arkansas on Saturday, or in any of the final three games.

The best Georgia (18-9, 9-6) could do this season is finish in a tie for second. And that would appear a stretch as it would require it to run the table, which would include defeating No. 1-ranked Kentucky in Athens on Tuesday.

The Bulldogs finished second in the league last year. They tied Kentucky at 12-6, but were well behind champion Florida (18-0).

In fact, Georgia hasn’t come close very often. The 1984-85 Bulldogs finished a game back of SEC champion LSU, and Tubby Smith’s 1995-96 squad was second in the East, but seven games behind Kentucky. Of course, everybody remembers that 1938-39 squad, which finished a game and a half behind Alabama.

Other than tournament championships in 1983 and 2008, Georgia has rarely sniffed an SEC title. And that bugs even those guys who won one.

“It’s a sense of pride for us to be the only regular-season champions, but it also kind of puts a bad taste in your mouth that you’re the only one,” said Rod Cole, the starting point guard on the 1990 team. “That’s kind of ridiculous, really. It’s tough because it’s nothing you can really brag on. You’re not going to go outside the University of Georgia and say ‘I’m the only SEC champion we ever had.’ …

“We want to be the first ones, but not the only ones.”

Fox believes it can happen again. Obviously a lot has to go right. Not only does it take talent, but there also has to be some good fortune involved.

For starters, everyone has to stay healthy and eligible. The wonder is that this season’s team is even in position to contend for postseason play. The Bulldogs lost starting small forward Brandon Morris to dismissal after a pot arrest last summer. They’ve seen his replacements — Juwan Parker and Kenny Paul Geno — miss 22 games to injuries. Three other players have missed multiple games because of concussions.

All told, if Parker misses Saturday’s game — there’s a chance he could return — Georgia players will have logged 30 “did not plays” in this season’s scorebook.

“Obviously it’s one of our goals,” Fox said. “We were second last year, yes, but it is very hard to do. This year we’ll put five or six teams into the NCAA tournament, and we’ll have one SEC champion. So it’s harder to win the SEC championship than it is to go to postseason play. Every school is making a commitment to win; some schools are making an unbelievable commitment to win it. So it’s very hard to do.”

That’s what makes the 1990 team’s accomplishment so incredible. The Bulldogs were helped some by the place and time in history. Kentucky was in the throes of NCAA probation and ineligible for the championship in 1990. And Florida, a major player in previous seasons, also had lost footing at that point following its NCAA run-ins under coach Norm Sloan.

It was LSU that was favored to win the SEC that season. The Bulldogs already had beaten them once — 94-92 in overtime in Baton Rouge — when they came to Athens on Feb. 25. Led by 7-footers O’Neal and Stanley Roberts and the prolific-scoring Jackson (who eventually changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) — Georgia trailed the Tigers by 19 points in the second half. But the Bulldogs came charging back behind Cole and 6-10 forward Alec Kessler, who finished with 30 points and 16 rebounds and teamed with Austin to play incredible defense in the post.

It came down to Austin making at least one of those free throws to win. And the senior from the Virgin Islands by way of London came to the line having missed 5 of 6 attempts.

“Ah, those free throws,” said Austin, who traveled from his home in London for Saturday’s celebration. “Man, it’s a blur now. But I know at the time I was just trying to calm my nerves and concentrate on making the first one. I put it up and it went through, that first one. It was a big opportunity, and I’m glad I had it.”

Austin said he hasn’t seen Durham or most of his teammates since the day he left Athens after graduation in 1991. He’s has played all over the world since then. Mainly in Great Britain for the London Towers (1994-2001). But he’ll be in town for Saturday’s festivities, along with every other living member of the 1989-90 team, managers and coaches included. Even the late Kessler, who died in 2007, will be represented by his wife, Rhea, and two sons.

They all say they hope other Bulldogs will one day be able to enjoy the sense of accomplishment and bonding they do.

“It does surprise me a little,” Austin said of Georgia having not won another regular-season championship since 1990. “I know they’ve come quite close a few times. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before it does happen again.”

Just not another quarter-century.