It took 19 years for Philips Arena to host its first NCAA Division I basketball tournament game.
The South Regional semifinals opener between Nevada and Loyola-Chicago on Thursday night finally brought March Madness to the arena, which opened in 1999. Loyola won the game 69-68.
Before Thursday, Atlanta had hosted a total of 85 NCAA Division I men’s tournament games -- 55 at the Omni from 1977-92 and 30 at the Georgia Dome. The Omni was demolished in 1997 and the Dome in 2017.
The tournament's first visit to Philips Arena comes with the arena in the midst of a $192.5 million renovation that won't be completed until October. On Thursday, a massive black curtain closed off the upper portion of the arena's west side, where a six-level wall of suites was demolished last summer.
Philips Arena’s closest previous brush with March Madness came in 2013, when it hosted the NCAA Divisions II and III men’s championship games. Those games were played in Atlanta in conjunction with the Division I Final Four at the Georgia Dome.
The NCAA awarded this year’s South Regional “Sweet 16” and “Elite 8” games to Philips Arena in November 2014, just days after awarding the 2020 Final Four to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
While a seating capacity of at least 60,000 is required for the Final Four, limiting that marquee event to domed or retractable-roof stadiums, the selection of Philips Arena was consistent with the NCAA men’s basketball committee’s recent preference to play earlier rounds of the tournament in smaller venues.
The NCAA in 2013 halted its previous practice of awarding regional finals and semifinals to domed stadiums in the year before they host the Final Four. That means Mercedes-Benz Stadium won’t host an NCAA Tournament game before hosting the 2020 Final Four.
In fact, as of now, there has been no announcement of any basketball game to be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the Final Four in two years.