Commentary

Bulldogs' historic wins an unexpected boost for Felton

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

ATLANTA -- Georgia can't fire basketball coach Dennis Felton now.

In fact, the Bulldogs have to give him a raise. A nice, big fat one.

Because on Saturday, Felton guided Georgia through the most unlikely of doubleheaders. The team that couldn't win consecutive games after early December won two games on the same day in the SEC tournament: a 60-56 win over Kentucky in overtime in the quarterfinals and then a 64-60 win over Mississippi State in the semifinals.

Georgia, which finished 13-16 and 4-12 in the SEC during the regular season, is now one victory away from earning the league's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. Arkansas, which upset Tennessee 92-91 in Saturday's other semifinal, plays the Bulldogs in Sunday's championship game (ESPN2, 3:30 ET).

"I can just hardly describe how proud I am of our players," Felton said. "Just the idea of winning, just the idea of playing two games within hours of each other against such heated competition and against such good competition, can be overpowering. I'm just really, really proud right now of our players, and we're also determined to come back and play with the same kind of conviction tomorrow."

Playing the Razorbacks only once has to be easier than what the Bulldogs did on Saturday. It is believed Georgia is the first Division I college basketball team in more than a half-century to win two games on one day. On March 13, 1992, Utah beat Hawaii 81-69 and lost to BYU 75-62 in the WAC tournament in Fort Collins, Colo. But on March 1, 1952, Kentucky beat Tennessee 81-66 and LSU 44-43 to win the SEC tournament in Louisville, Ky.

And 56 years later, the Bulldogs were forced to play two games at Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum on Saturday after a tornado heavily damaged the Georgia Dome on Friday night. SEC officials postponed Georgia's game against the Wildcats until noon Saturday. Roughly six hours after beating Kentucky, the Bulldogs returned to the court to face Mississippi State, which had beaten Alabama in the quarterfinals about 21 1/2 hours earlier.

"Of course, we thought we had an advantage," said Mississippi State guard Barry Stewart. "But I guess they took a challenge today, playing two games in a row."

Georgia had to overcome more than its tired legs. After the Bulldogs took an early 15-4 lead, Mississippi State stormed back to tie the score at 21. With Georgia leading 27-21, senior co-captain Dave Bliss picked up his third personal foul. Then Bliss protested the call and was given a technical foul by official Mike Stuart. So with 5:37 left in the half, Bliss went to the bench with four fouls.

In the second half, Georgia forward Albert Jackson picked up his fourth foul with 14:26 left. Point guard Sundiata Gaines, the team's leading scorer, had four fouls with 12:23 to go.

With about 14 minutes left and Bliss and Jackson sitting on Georgia's bench, freshman Jeremy Price -- one of only two Bulldogs taller than 6-feet-7 -- was walking off the floor with a trail of blood behind him. Jackson had to go back into the game while trainers tried to stop the bleeding in Price's mouth.

"I'm thinking, 'This is getting really tough,'" Felton said. "That's the truth, that's what I was thinking. We've been in situations a lot this season, where guys have had to play even when they were fatigued and guys have had to play with fouls."

[+] EnlargeDennis Felton
AP Photo/Dave MartinHas Georgia's run through the SEC tournament saved coach Dennis Felton's job? It'd sure be hard to get rid of him now.

The Bulldogs don't have a choice. Georgia has one of the thinnest rosters in the country with only nine available players. Two starters from a year ago, guard Mike Mercer and leading scorer Takais Brown, never stepped on the court this season after each was kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons. Sophomore center Rashaad Singleton quit the team in January. Freshmen Jeremy Jacob and Chris Barnes both suffered season-ending injuries.

Even Georgia's drought-stricken lakes have more depth than the Bulldogs.

"I just put it as bluntly as I could today," Felton said. "I told them, 'You guys have got to finish this game. You're going to finish this game.' I told them I didn't want them fouling under any circumstances the rest of the game. I told them I wanted them to finish the game with four fouls. I didn't care if they scored. They couldn't get a fifth foul."

Among Georgia's players in foul trouble, only Gaines failed to heed Felton's command. Gaines fouled out on a questionable offensive foul with 7:18 left to play. Gaines was also hurt on the play, after slamming his right hip on the floor. He had the hip iced after the game but vowed to play against the Razorbacks on Sunday.

"I'm not tired," Gaines said. "I'll fight through anything. My name means 'African warrior.' I'm going to be a warrior."

Felton has kept fighting, even as many Georgia fans have called for his firing after the team struggled mightily during his fifth season. After inheriting a program mired in NCAA probation for violations committed during former coach Jim Harrick's tenure, Felton steadily rebuilt the program. This season was a major step back, though.

"I've never for a moment thought I was the greatest coach in the world," Felton said. "But I've always felt really, really confident about my ability to coach and successfully build programs and win championships. So I've never really lost any [confidence] that I could do that, or that I'm the coach that could do it at Georgia."

Georgia athletic director Damon Evans, who during the last few weeks has been reluctant to give Felton a public vote of confidence, said he was impressed by what the Bulldogs have accomplished the past three days.

"I don't want to detract from what's going on tonight," Evans said. "Dennis has done a great job in the tournament, that's obvious. This team has done a great job in the tournament. As you know, this certainly doesn't hurt Dennis. He's put himself in a good position."

So have the Bulldogs. The hard part seems to be behind them. If Georgia beats Arkansas, it will become one of the most unlikely participants in the NCAA tournament.

And even that can't be more difficult than what the Bulldogs have already done.

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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