Bill Trocchi
Sunday March 16th, 2008

ATLANTA -- There have been 29 conference tournaments across the nation over the last two weeks. And then there's the Southeastern Conference tournament.

You have to start with Georgia, the team that won four SEC games all season, and now has won three more, including a history-making double-header against Kentucky and Mississippi State on Saturday. One of the worst teams in the league put on such an inspiring performance, coach Dennis Felton was "bursting at the seams with pride." Incredibly, the Dawgs outlasted a deeper, more athletic Mississippi State squad in the nightcap and earned a berth in the championship game against Arkansas with their best player (Sundiata Gaines) fouled out for the final seven minutes.

Who was the hero? Billy Humphrey, who nailed two shots in the final two minutes after missing his first 12 on the day (six in each game).

But the oddities of this tourney only start there. You want buzzer-beaters? Alabama's Mykal Riley did the trick Friday night to force overtime against MSU. Last-second heroics? Ring up Tennessee's Chris Lofton, who drained a game-winning three after shooting 1-for-9 from three-point range prior to his winning shot against South Carolina on Friday afternoon. Unlikely heroes? How about Arkansas shot-blocker Steven Hill, who hit the winner against top-seeded Tennessee to push the Razorbacks to a 92-91 win on Saturday night. It was his only basket of the game.

Hold on. There's more. Much more. Georgia's first two wins had FOUR last-second situations -- and it won both games with guys you wouldn't exactly pick for your SEC fantasy team. Dave Bliss hit an awkward bank shot in overtime to beat Ole Miss 97-95, then freshman Zac Swansey nailed a spinning three-pointer against Kentucky with one second left.

There have been seven games where there was a potential game-winning or overtime-forcing shot in the last 10 seconds. And even the blowouts have been interesting. On Thursday, Billy Donovan watched his team fall behind 30-5 in the same building he won the national championship 11months ago, then proceeded to say he was not "excited going forward" with this group of players. "We have a commitment issue," Donovan told the assembled media. "It bothers me as a coach because I just got done coaching a group of guys the last two years that were so committed. To be with this group, I don't think just because they're going to be another year older [next year] that all of a sudden, everything gets resolved. I just don't see that." The trip back to Gainesville probably made Friday night's tornado seem tame in comparison.

Oh yeah, the tornado. A mere sidebar to the pulsating hoops. You've heard by now a tornado tore through downtown Atlanta during Friday night's quarterfinal dunk-fest between Mississippi State and Alabama. The storm caused an hour delay, dropped washers and bolts from the ceiling and caused other damage inside and outside the dome. The crowd was surprisingly calm, security and police handled things in an orderly fashion and the final two minutes were finally played (and not decided until Riley's three bounced off the rim at the buzzer, giving Mississippi State a 69-67 win).

The most interesting sight of the bizarre evening was after they informed Georgia and Kentucky there would be no second game that night. Kentucky's players gathered their gear from the locker room and walked down a long hall under stands of the dome. Members of the Alabama dance team were eating pizza in the same area. Georgia's band members were packing up their instruments. Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was talking to referees, Kentucky's cheerleaders were putting on jackets and police officers and yellow-jacketed security personnel came and went. It looked like a SportsCenter commercial, when uniformed sports figures look comically odd when they are away from their area of competition. If the Syracuse Orange happened to walk by, no one would have noticed.

When the decision was made to move the final four games to Georgia Tech and allow just a limited amount of fans into each game, the saga took another bizarre turn. Kentucky fans, who annually take over the SEC tournament, were essentially locked out. Thousands of Big Blue supporters were left to find a sports bar in Atlanta, and watch their team lose its only game to a team with an RPI of 152.

The atmosphere inside Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum resembled a high school jamboree. There was support for both sides, bands, cheerleaders ... and plenty of room to stretch your legs, with attendance around 2,500.

Not that the basketball was high school quality -- far from it. "Gosh, it was great basketball, back and forth, great players making great plays. That was as good a college basketball game as there was in the country right there," said Bruce Pearl, Tennessee's demonstrative coach. Sonny Weems' alley-oop down the stretch was phenomenal for Arkansas, and Tennessee was carving the Razorbacks apart at the other end. Lofton ended up doing the opposite of what he did against South Carolina (no surprise, given the weekend), missing the potential game-winner after shooting lights out all game. The lead changed hands 17 times, including four times in the last two minutes.

And then that game was overshadowed. Georgia jumped out to a 10-2 lead, but Mississippi State recovered and tied things at halftime. Surely, Georgia's legs would give out in the second half, right?

"It was a grind," Bliss said. "We just didn't let [fatigue] become a factor."

Georgia played more zone than usual to conserve energy, and the strategy worked. Mississippi State took a 60-56 lead with 6:56 to play, but Georgia still didn't fold. Down the stretch, Georgia made plays, taking the lead for good on a Humphrey step-back with 1:21 left. A couple defensive stands and some free throws later, and Georgia was celebrating with its fans on Cremins Court. Albert Jackson had enough energy to give the Bulldog mascot a piggy-back ride off the court -- two games or no two games.

"It felt like AAU ball again," said Georgia's Corey Butler. "This weekend has been crazy."

Ahhh, yeah. And it isn't over yet.

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