By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) - The setting resembled a Pee Wee league game, with seats reserved for family and friends. Most everyone else headed
for home while a Southeastern Conference tournament like no other
ad-libbed its way through the weekend, trying to pick up the pieces
from a devastating storm.
There was a new venue - the cozy arena on Georgia Tech's campus, rather than the spacious Georgia Dome. There was a hastily arranged schedule - yep, Georgia actually had to play a doubleheader
Saturday, something most of the Bulldogs hadn't done since their
"Chaotic" was the way Kentucky star Ramel Bradley described
it, and that was certainly as good a word as any.
Friday night, a powerful tornado tore through downtown Atlanta,
causing the thick fabric roof of the Georgia Dome to flap like a
flag in a stiff breeze. Small chunks of debris, from bolts to insulation, fell from the towering ceiling. Large strips of metal siding and insulation were ripped away from outer shell of the 70,000-seat stadium, which was pocked with gaping holes in the light of a new day.
With the dome judged unsafe, the SEC decided to move the final
four tournament games to 9,100-seat Alexander Memorial Coliseum,
only 2 miles away but far enough to have avoided the wrath of the
storm. There was no way to accommodate all of the 20,000 or so fans
who had tickets, so the league decided to keep everyone out except
a bare-bones crew: media, support staff, bands, cheerleaders,
family and friends of the teams.
When Georgia and Kentucky took the court at noon Saturday for
the last of the quarterfinal games, one that was supposed to be
played Friday night, there were only about 1,500 people in the
stands. Georgia upset the Wildcats 60-56 in overtime, but the only
thing the Bulldogs got for their trouble was another game about six
They were set to face rested Mississippi State, which got nearly
a full day to recoup from its delayed but completed victory over
Alabama the previous night.
"It's not really your typical time, especially playing two
games in a day," said Georgia guard Zac Swansey, who hit the
winning shot against Kentucky. "I have to go back to my AAU days
since I did that."
Outside, another line of severe storms swept through downtown
Atlanta on Saturday, pounding the roof of the coliseum with
marble-sized hail between games. A tornado warning was issued, but
no twisters touched down near the arena.
Meanwhile, disappointed fans wondered why they were shut out of
the tournament, especially when there were entire sections of empty
seats at the replacement arena.
"There's not an easy way to get this done, but we feel like the
amount of people that traveled this far and paid this much money,
it's disappointing for the fans," said Brad Hughes, a Kentucky
rooter from suburban Atlanta who had planned to attend the
tournament with a friend from the bluegrass state.
"It's going to be like a Pee Wee league game because they're
going to be playing in front of their parents and their closest
SEC officials said they had no choice but to bar most fans from
attending. They were told there might not be enough police officers
to provide full security at the remaining games in view of the
massive damage in downtown Atlanta. Also, the league worried about
opening up the coliseum to general-admission seating and having far
more fans converge on the building than could possibly get in.
"I understand the frustration," SEC associate commissioner
Charles Bloom said. "But we were forced into this by a situation
that doesn't come around very often."
Not very often, indeed. Go all the way back to 1989, when the
ECAC North Atlantic Conference banned fans from its tournament
because of a measles outbreak.
The SEC, which planned to give refunds for unused tickets, could
be commended for going with a plan that might cost it nearly $2
million in revenue. But there were questions about the sequence of
events Friday night.
First, several fans said they received cell phone calls warning
them of a possible tornado. But no weather warnings were announced
to the crowd before a rumbling noise began to rattle the building,
causing some fans to flee for the exits and others to look
nervously toward the roof, where catwalks, metal scaffolding and a
temporary video board swayed dangerously above the crowd of some
"The dome follows the weather," Bloom said. "We were told the
time they got the warning was almost simultaneous to when the storm
hit. It must have happened very quickly."
Mississippi State and Alabama were in overtime when the tornado
plowed into the dome, and the players quickly headed for the safety
of the locker room. After a delay of just over an hour, stadium
officials judged the facility structurally sound, and the teams
returned to finish State's victory over the Crimson Tide. Then,
after another round of meetings, it was decided the dome was unsafe
for any more games the rest of the weekend.
"They went back and did more of a search," Bloom said. "I
don't know all the specifics of what they found, but they did tell
us that games should not be played there the rest of the
Dome officials didn't immediately return telephone calls seeking
The schedule was hastily revised, much to the chagrin of Georgia
coach Dennis Felton. He didn't think it was fair that his team,
which needed to win the tournament to make the NCAA tournament, had
to play a doubleheader.
"I very, very respectfully take great exception to the decision
to make a team play two games in a row when the games are so
important," he griped. "I can't help but feel when the decision
was made, they made it knowing full well they were basically
eliminating our chances of winning the tournament."
The other semifinal game pitted No. 4 Tennessee, the
regular-season champion, against Arkansas.
Fans who couldn't see the games in person had to settle for
watching on television. Trying to make the best of the situation,
Tennessee alumni circulated e-mails urging the Big Orange faithful
to gather for a viewing party at a sports bar near Georgia Tech.
Others decided it was time to go. Arkansas fan Jon Abney had
tickets for the semifinals, but he headed home to Norfolk, Va.,
after learning he couldn't get in. They night before, he had to
bolt from his ninth-floor hotel room after the windows were blown
"We've got plenty to do at home," he said.
Associated Press Writers Jason Bronis, AP Sports Writer Beth
Rucker and AP freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd in contributed to
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)