The Bulldogs beat as many SEC teams (four) at the tournament as they did during the entire regular season.
Photo: RICH ADDICKS / AJC
Photo: RICH ADDICKS / AJC

Nothing more bizarre than Georgia winning ‘Tornado Tourney’ of ’08

Nobody knew how bad it was until hardware started falling from the roof of the Georgia Dome. When we say hardware, we’re talking about metal bolts six inches long and three-quarters-of-an-inch around dropping a couple of hundred feet to the floor. Moments before one of those landed with a resounding ping between press row and the stands surrounding the basketball court, there had been only a faint, distant roar and the ever-so-subtle swaying of a giant scoreboard dangling from the scaffolding underneath the fabric-covered ceiling.

» MORE: Tornado slams into downtown Atlanta

We know now that a tornado had ripped through downtown Atlanta and damaged the Georgia Dome as well as dozens of other buildings. But at the moment it occurred, as Mississippi State led Alabama 64-61 with 2:11 remaining in overtime of their quarterfinal matchup of the 2008 SEC Tournament, nobody knew what just happened. The game was stopped to take inventory of the situation and then, astonishingly, it would be completed after an hour-and-five-minute delay.

Debris flies as high winds hit the Georgia Dome on Friday night during the Missippi State-Alabama basketball game at the SEC tournament.
Photo: Ben Gray

Meanwhile, the Georgia’s men’s basketball team sat obliviously in a cinder-blocked locker room awaiting their turn to take the court.

“We’re just sitting in there waiting to play and somebody came in and told us that a tornado had hit the arena and they were evacuating, but just to sit tight,” said Sundiata Gaines, a senior point guard and co-captain of the team. “In my mind I’m thinking, ‘Wow, we need to get out of this arena.’ But they were saying the safest place for us at the time was the locker room.” 

What was unknown at that moment was the hope that resided in that locker room with that Georgia team. The bottom-seeded Bulldogs were preparing to play the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats that night, and no one outside that spartan space was giving them any shot to win. 

“We had a bunch of guys who had been on teams that just weren’t very good the first couple of years,” co-captain Dave Bliss said. “Me and ‘Yatta’ (aka Gaines), Billy Humphrey, Terrance Woodbury, we worked really hard just to get the (program) out of the gutter. But I think the thing people forget is that we had been trending up for a while. Coming into the year, we were thinking we were going to be a really good team.”

It looked like they could be. The Bulldogs had finished 19-14 and played in the NIT the year before, and the core of that squad was back. Or so they thought.

Takais Brown and Mike Mercer, stars of the 2006-07 team, were dismissed before the season started, taking their combined 27 points per game with them. Freshman Jeremy Jacob, a coveted signee out of Baton Rouge, suffered a broken foot six games in and was out. And Rashaad Singleton, a 7-foot sophomore from Florida, quit the team before it reconvened after the Christmas break.

» ALSO: Bizarre moments in Atlanta sports history

When they arrived at the 2008 SEC Tournament, the 14-16 Bulldogs entered having lost six of their past seven games to finish last in the East. Among those defeats was a 14-point loss at home to Ole Miss to cap the regular season.

But Georgia avenged that loss with an exhilarating 97-95 overtime win over the Rebels to open the SEC tournament. After topping 70 points just twice in the previous month, the Bulldogs nearly scored 100 their first time out in the postseason.

For their trouble, they drew the mighty Wildcats. Because of Kentucky’s past successes there, its fans had come to call the city “Catlanta.” Accordingly, the Wildcats’ faithful had per usual tinted the town blue.

When the Bulldogs were finally released from their safehold inside the Dome, they were bused back to their team hotel, the Marriott Marquis. That was their first chance to behold the destruction that had been unleashed. Bliss remembers traffic lights and power lines lying in the streets and curtains hanging out of blown-out hotel windows.

When they reached Peachtree Street, the bus driver informed the Bulldogs they would be unable access the Marquis’ entrance on Courtland Street because of debris in the street. Instead, he would have to drop them off at the Hilton, and they could walk through the lobby and out the other side to get to their hotel.

As it turned out, the Hilton happened to be “Big Blue’s” headquarters for the weekend.

“So we walk through and the whole lobby is blue,” Bliss said with a laugh. “It’s all Kentucky, like being shoulder-to-shoulder in a bar. The place is packed, and they're liquored-up, and we’re getting, like, the royal treatment walking through there.”

Especially Bliss. The hard-to-miss, 6-foot-10 center became the focus of the Big Blue’s ire a year earlier when he knocked star Ramel Bradley to the floor during Georgia’s stunning upset of the Wildcats in Athens.

“It wasn’t like scary or intimidating,” Bliss said. “It was funny, really.”

Not to everybody, though.

“That got Yatta fired up,” said Melvin Robinson, now an assistant AD at Georgia, but then the team’s director of operations. “He said, ‘We’re gonna beat their (expletive) tomorrow.’”

Gaines and the Bulldogs went to bed thinking they would be heading back to the Georgia Dome to face the Wildcats. They woke up to learn that they’d be going instead to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

The Georgia Dome had suffered $1.8 million worth of damage and was deemed by engineers as unsafe to use for the rest of the tournament.

“We discussed numerous options until 12:30, 1 o’clock in the morning,” recalls Mark Womack, executive associate commissioner of the SEC and the tournament’s director that year. “We needed to find a facility that was ready to go and could have shoot-arounds by 10 o’clock that morning. Georgia Tech said it could do that for us. It’s pretty incredible that we made all that happen. That’s my biggest takeaway, the cooperation we got from everybody to get the tournament completed.”

And it was used to hold much of the SEC Tournament in 2008 after a tornado hit the Georgia Dome. Rival Georgia took the title that year.
Photo: AJC file photo

Located two miles away from the Georgia Dome, Alexander Memorial Coliseum sat unoccupied with the Yellow Jackets in Charlotte at the ACC Tournament. Conference officials had figured out they could finish the tournament there. But with a seating capacity of 8,000 – rather than 25,000 available in the Dome’s basketball configuration – they wouldn’t be able to accommodate ticket-holders.

They decided to admit only “friends and family.”

“The ticket part was hard,” Womack said. “People were already there, and they were planning on being at the tournament. How are you going to determine who gets in and who doesn’t get in?”

There was that, then there was the fact that the reconfigured bracket would require the winner of the Georgia-Kentucky to play two games in one day. Both sides protested, but there simply was no other way.

Not surprisingly, the Wildcats managed get quite a few blue-clad fans into Tech’s arena that Saturday morning. But they would be disappointed.

This game also went into overtime, and it was won on the unlikeliest of plays by Georgia. On a final play designed to get the ball to Humphrey, freshman guard Zac Swansey ended up with it instead. His twirl-and-launch 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds remaining lifted the Bulldogs to a 60-56 victory.

“That was monumental to me,” Gaines said. “When Zac made that shot, I knew we had a great chance of winning.”

With that considerable hurdle cleared, the Bulldogs would go on to beat Mississippi State 64-60 later that night, and then clinched the championship Sunday by winning 66-57 over Arkansas.

The rotating role of hero was a theme that stood up throughout the tournament for the Bulldogs. While Gaines, the grizzled New York City point guard, was named the tournament’s MVP and he and Terrance Woodbury made the all-tourney team for their week’s fine work, different players made key contributions each game. Backup center Albert Jackson made key free throws, Humphrey and Woodbury rained down 3-pointers from all over the floor and Bliss rebounded like Dennis Rodman, totaling 11 boards in the championship tilt alone.

“Everybody stepped up, and that’s what propelled us to get over that hump,” Gaines said of the run. “The spirit of that team was great. Everybody was confident, everybody was encouraging each other. The energy was positive.”

Said Bliss: “It’s as simple as getting into the team spirit and kind of bonding together. There’s a lot of stories like that in sports. There were only like seven or eight of us, but that can be good thing sometimes. Everybody had a role.”

Also playing a role in the run was the status of coach Dennis Felton. It had been widely reported going in, and confirmed going out, that Felton was to be dismissed at season’s end. The Bulldogs had gone 72-79 in his five seasons to date and had only one brief NIT appearance to show for it.

Nobody was expecting the SEC Tournament to be a turnaround point.

“I probably would’ve counted us out, too,” said Gaines, who continues to play professional basketball in the Saudi Arabian Premier League. “But that’s what makes it special. It was the first time in my career that coach Felton just let me play and be myself. I was able to take my game to a new level. I told him going in, ‘I’m gonna win this tournament for you.’ And that’s what we did.”

Atlanta's somewhat infamous "Tornado Tournament" of 2008 brought plenty of surprises. First, a tornado hit downtown Atlanta, forcing the SEC Tourney to move to Alexander Memorial Coliseum at Georgia Tech. Then, Felton's Dogs topped Arkansas to win the SEC title.
Photo: Rich Addicks / raddicks@ajc.com

With the tourney title secured, Georgia was rewarded with the NCAA Tournament bid that came with it. The Bulldogs were assigned a No. 14 seed and drew third-seeded Xavier in the Washington, D.C., regional. Georgia actually held a nine-point lead at halftime of that game, only to watch the Musketeers rally for a 73-61 victory.

Afterward, athletic director Damon Evans was left with no choice but to keep Felton, who accepted a two-year contract extension a few weeks later. But Felton wouldn’t make it to the end of the next season. He was fired Jan. 29, 2009, following a loss to Florida. It was Georgia’s seventh consecutive in a losing streak that would grow to 11 games.

“A lot of people talk about us rallying around Coach losing his job, but I don’t remember thinking about that at all,” Bliss said. “He never said anything about it, and we never talked about it. I think it was as simple as a bunch of good guys playing at a high level with no personal agendas at all. I think that’s really what happened. Everybody was just trying to do whatever it took to win.”

Apparently, it took a coach on the hot seat, a natural disaster and a bunch of role players with nothing to lose.

“When you look at what those kids accomplished, winning two games in a day and more in a row than they had all year, that's one of the more remarkable runs anybody's ever seen in any tournament,” Womack said.

The whole affair was beautifully preserved in an “SEC Storied” documentary called “Miracle 3.”

Nobody will ever know if Georgia would have done what it did had a tornado not torn down Marietta Street and sent the tournament to Tech’s arena. But with everything that went on that strange weekend in Atlanta, it seemed almost appropriate. 

“I’m still surprised to this day that Georgia Tech agreed to that,” Bliss, now an NBA assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder, said with a laugh. “But I’m glad they did. That was another great thing about it. It’s hard for me to even tell the story sometimes because there are so many little off-shoots and layers to it. It’s just a weird story.”

Bizarre, for sure.

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