SEC tournament delayed as Georgia Dome sustains damage

Updated: March 15, 2008, 1:51 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach and Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- A severe storm ripped a hole in the roof of the Georgia Dome during the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, delaying Mississippi State's 69-67 overtime win over Alabama for more than an hour and postponing a game between Georgia and Kentucky.

As Mississippi State led 64-61 with 2:11 left in overtime, a loud blast was heard inside the dome. The girders near the dome's roof began to swing, and a gaping section of the north part of the roof was ripped open, dropping debris that included nuts and bolts.

Players and coaches from the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide were sent to the locker room, along with the coaches' wives and children, and stadium officials began evacuating fans from the upper reaches of the stadium. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the Atlanta area at 9:26 p.m. ET after radar indicated a storm capable of producing a tornado was about six miles west of Atlanta.

Tyler Williams, from Knoxville, Tenn., said he was sitting in section 128, six rows behind the home team's bench.

"It sounded like a freight train," Williams said. "The rafters were swaying, and the roof of the dome was starting to ripple.

"It was a little frightening, to say the least."

SEC officials said early Saturday that the Georgia-Kentucky game will be played at noon Saturday at Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The winner of that game will have to return in the evening to face Mississippi State in the semifinals.

The other semifinal, between No. 4 Tennessee and Arkansas, will be played at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Television production crews moved their equipment late Friday night from the stadium to Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The arena seats only 9,100, so ticketing will be an issue, and it can't hold the 200 media members who potentially could cover the event.

Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said late Friday that he didn't know whether the Wildcats would be playing Saturday. He said the team was warming up to go on the court when it was told the game wouldn't be played.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Dome
AP Photo/Dave MartinSecurity personnel inspect the high seating area of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta late Friday night.
Gillispie wasn't in favor of playing two games in one day if the Wildcats were to beat Georgia and advance to the semifinals, but he said he didn't think any coach would be in favor of that scenario, calling it unfair.

An NCAA official told ESPN.com by e-mail from Indianapolis that SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who is on the NCAA tournament selection committee, was monitoring the situation. The tournament bracket must be done by 6 p.m. Sunday for the CBS selection show. The NCAA official said it was too soon to talk about Plan B, what would be done if the SEC couldn't provide an automatic qualifier by the time the bracket was announced. The championship game is scheduled for Sunday afternoon on CBS.

Also, an NCAA official e-mailed ESPN.com and said the NCAA will plan Saturday morning for how the SEC situation will affect the selection, seeding and bracketing process.

Semifinalists Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State all are likely to be in the NCAA field, but Kentucky needs the games to ensure a berth. Georgia must win the tournament to earn a berth.

In addition, Tennessee is in contention for a No. 1 seed, so not playing games could affect its place in the seeding.

SEC spokesman Charles Bloom said SEC officials spent time Friday assessing whether the games could be played in the Georgia Dome because of the damage caused by the storm. With more bad weather expected in the area early Saturday morning, it's expected the dome could sustain even more damage.

"That's one of the issues we're talking about, whether we can still be in the building," Bloom said. "There's more bad weather coming, and we're not sure what those [storm] cells will bring."

Meanwhile, all other weekend events at the Georgia Dome, Centennial Olympic Park and the Georgia World Congress Center have been cancelled. Those include the Atlanta Home Show, the Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta's annual Hinman Dental Meeting, the Red Bull Illume exhibit of sports and action photography, and several private events.

As the Mississippi State-Alabama game resumed after a 63-minute delay Friday night, long metal panels littered the parking lot and lawns on the north side of the dome. Full-grown trees lay uprooted, and 30-foot traffic signs that direct patrons where to park were turned over.

Eddie Smith, a bus driver who was shuttling media members from the dome to a downtown hotel, said the bus parked in front of him in a Georgia Dome parking lot began rocking back and forth and nearly tipped over during the storm.

"It blew up the hatches on top of the bus," he said. "I thought it was going to tip over."

With crews on hand to fix downed power poles across the street, security personnel began to usher people back inside around 10:20 p.m. as another storm approached.

Next door, at the Georgia World Congress Center, where an ROTC ball hosting 11 high schools was underway, windows were blown out. Several girls walked without shoes, their feet bleeding.

At the adjoining Philips Arena, the Atlanta Hawks were able to finish their 7:30 p.m. NBA game against the Los Angeles Clippers, a 117-93 win for Atlanta.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com. Andy Katz is a senior college basketball writer for ESPN.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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