Commentary

Georgia wins thriller over UK, but rare doubleheader peeves Felton

Originally Published: March 15, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Rick Cothern, an Elvis impersonator and die-hard Big Blue basketball fan from Bowling Green, Ky., stood on the sidewalk outside Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the Georgia Tech campus Saturday, his spirits nearly as blue as his Wildcats vest.

"Can't you get him in?" asked JoAnne Cobble, his friend and fellow Cats fan from Independence, Ky. "I think it's a shame Elvis can't get in the building. How's Elvis supposed to leave the building when he can't even get in?"

Cothern, who said he has attended the past 15 SEC tournaments, was in the Georgia Dome on Friday night, preparing to watch the Wildcats play Georgia in an SEC quarterfinal game. But after a tornado heavily damaged the Georgia Dome and the surrounding area of downtown Atlanta about an hour before the Wildcats were scheduled to play, the game was postponed until noon Saturday and moved to Georgia Tech.

Cothern had a ticket to watch Kentucky's games in the Georgia Dome. He couldn't get inside Alexander Memorial Coliseum to see his beloved Wildcats play.

Because Georgia Tech's on-campus arena seats only about 9,100 fans, the SEC decided players' families, school officials and credentialed media would be the only people allowed inside. Each school also received 400 general-admission tickets to distribute to its alumni and fans, SEC spokesman Charles Bloom said.

Cothern wasn't lucky enough to receive one of Kentucky's tickets.

"I've never been to an event where I couldn't get in," Cothern said. "It's the first time I've been shut out. It's the first time in 15 years Elvis couldn't get into the building."

In the end, Cothern was probably glad he didn't get to see Kentucky play Saturday. The Wildcats were upset by Georgia 60-56 in overtime, the first time the Bulldogs have beaten UK in the SEC tournament in nine tries.

Georgia, which came into the SEC tournament having lost 11 of its past 13 games, won for the second time in a row after freshman Zac Swansey drilled a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds to play in overtime.

Swansey, who hadn't made a 3-pointer in the Bulldogs' previous six games, didn't even want to shoot. He tried to hand the basketball off to guard Billy Humphrey, but a Kentucky defender shut off the designed play. So Swansey spun and fired from the right wing.

I knew there would be a lot of Kentucky fans here. There was supposed to be a limit. I'm not going to get into that. I'm going to take the high road right now.

--Georgia athletic director Damon Evans

"I was just trying not to foul him," said Kentucky forward Ramon Harris, who guarded Swansey on the play. "It was a difficult shot, and he made it."

The Bulldogs' reward for beating the Wildcats, who had defeated them in 109 of their previous 131 meetings? Georgia had about six hours to recover before playing Mississippi State in a semifinal game Saturday night (8:30 ET). The winner of that game will advance to Sunday's championship game (ESPN2, 3:30 ET).

The fact that Georgia would have to play two games in one day didn't sit well with Bulldogs coach Dennis Felton, who might well be coaching to keep his job.

"This is the hand we've been dealt," Felton said. "I objected vehemently, but I wasn't involved in the dialogue. I understand that there's so much that goes into the decision, and because I wasn't involved in the dialogue, I can't tell you that I know everything that goes into the decision. But I think at the end of the day, what's fair and what's best for the student-athletes is what should be the overriding concern."

Felton said he suggested to Georgia athletic director Damon Evans that the Bulldogs and Wildcats play the quarterfinal game Saturday, then have the league play both semifinal games Sunday morning. The semifinal winners could have then played the championship game Sunday afternoon before the NCAA tournament field was announced.

"Nobody has told me why we couldn't do it," Felton said. "I don't see why we couldn't have played a semifinal game at 9 a.m., another one at 11:30 a.m. and the championship at 3 p.m. So now whoever is playing two games in a row, it's fair, because both teams have played two games in a row. I very, very respectfully take exception to the decision to make a team play two games in a row in games that are so important. I think everybody understands that this tournament is our only chance to make it to the [NCAA] tournament.

"I can't help but feel that when that decision was made, they made it knowing well that they were basically eliminating our chances of winning the tournament."

Felton couldn't have known the Bulldogs would be playing basically a road game against Kentucky, either. Wildcats fans vastly outnumbered those cheering for the Bulldogs, even though the UGA campus is only about 65 miles northeast of Atlanta.

"I knew there would be a lot of Kentucky fans here," Evans said. "There was supposed to be a limit. I'm not going to get into that. I'm going to take the high road right now. I'm sure everybody tried to maintain that number and do what's appropriate. But you knew they'd show up. Kentucky has a big contingent and huge following. They're here, and it is what it is."

While a couple hundred fans walked the streets around the arena trying to find tickets or any other way into the building, about 2,500 fans filled the seats in the lower bowl of the arena. Outside, many Kentucky fans were trying desperately to find tickets. One fan offered a reporter $200 for his press credential. Another fan tried to buy passes from members of the Bulldogs' pep band.

[+] EnlargeKentucky Wildcats against the Georgia Bulldogs
Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIREThe SEC men's tournament venue change after the tornado limited attendance to the lucky few.

When the game started, Georgia fans filled a small section behind the Bulldogs' bench; Kentucky fans were scattered around the court. When the game was still on the line in overtime, UK fans loudly cheered "Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!"

"I knew Kentucky was into horse breeding," joked former Auburn coach Sonny Smith, who was in attendance. "I didn't know they could breed family members so quickly."

Kim Hicks, a junior at UK, said she and six of her friends were standing outside the arena when a man wearing a suit approached her. The man should have been wearing a Santa Claus suit. He had 10 tickets. On Saturday, she and her friend, Richard Conway, were holding a sign behind the Kentucky bench that read, "We survived the Georgia Dome."

For such a short turnaround, it was all but a miracle that the SEC could survive being moved out of the Georgia Dome. Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich said SEC officials called about 9:30 Friday night and indicated they might need the school's arena to finish the tournament. Radakovich said workers stayed in the building through the night, cleaning seats, stocking concession stands and devising a parking plan. Ushers and security personnel from the Georgia Dome worked Saturday's games at Georgia Tech; some SEC officials even directed traffic outside.

During the game, media members were sitting in courtside seats because the venue didn't have enough press seating. Hand-written signs pointed players and coaches to the teams' locker rooms. A few minutes before the first game began, workers were still unloading copier machines, food and other supplies from the Georgia Dome.

"We were going to do whatever we could to help them," Radakovich said. "We worked very closely with the folks from the Georgia Dome when we hosted the Final Four last year. We have a great relationship with them. In their time of need, we want to help them any way we can."

Playing in an ACC arena with so few fans, though, seemed different. Then again, some things seemed the same.

A few hours after Big Blue filled the arena, Arkansas fans began filling the seats. An hour before the Razorbacks tipped off against Tennessee in their semifinal game, fans were already "calling the hogs."

For a change, it was music to nearly everyone's ears.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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