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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
David Paschall

Since the Southeastern Conference reinstated its men's basketball tournament in 1979 following a 26-year hiatus, no venue has housed the event more than the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The home of the league's football championship game since 1994, the Georgia Dome hosted 10 of the 17 SEC tournaments from 1995 to 2011. The 11th such event began Wednesday night and will run through Sunday afternoon, but it will be the last as the league transitions to Nashville as its primary site.

"The Georgia Dome has always been a great, great venue for SEC basketball just because it's in Atlanta, a major city in the Southeast," Florida coach Billy Donovan said earlier this week. "It's easy to get there and accessible for fans, and as the NCAA tournament has grown, you're playing in a lot more dome settings and those kinds of things. Whether it's been Memphis, Atlanta or Nashville, I think our league does a great job with the tournament and getting it prepared each and every year."

SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced in October that Nashville's Bridgestone Arena would host nine of the 11 SEC men's tournaments from 2015 through 2025. The only exceptions are in 2018 and 2022, with Tampa and St. Louis expected to land the five-day competition in those years.

Nashville has hosted three of the last eight SEC tournaments, matching Atlanta's frequency during that stretch.

"I'm sure the decision to move it to Nashville was a business decision, and I have the utmost respect for the people who make those decisions," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "Nashville was good to us last year, and it's an SEC town that really supports the tournament as well.

"But based on the tornado that hit there a few years ago, the Dome will always go down in the history of SEC tournament basketball as a place full of a lot of memories."

The first SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome in 1995 likely produced the best championship game, when Kentucky rallied from a nine-point deficit with 1:39 remaining in overtime to topple Arkansas 95-93. The Razorbacks had won the 1994 national championship and would advance to the '95 NCAA title game, while the Wildcats were a year away from winning the '96 crown.

Yet the prevailing SEC tournament memory from the Dome will forever be March 14, 2008, when a tornado with 120 mph winds bounced off the facility and slammed into the World Congress Center. Mississippi State and Alabama were in overtime during the third of Friday's quarterfinal games when the tornado hit, causing a stoppage that resulted in both teams heading to their locker rooms.

Play resumed nearly an hour later, with Mississippi State winning 69-67, but the last quarterfinal between Kentucky and Georgia was postponed until Saturday.

"We lost before the tornado hit, and I was driving back to Nashville," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I could see bad weather in my rearview mirror, literally, but I had no idea until the next day that a tornado had hit the Dome. That's my prevailing memory of the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome."

Said Donovan: "That stood out for everybody."

The tornado caused $1.8 million worth of damage to the Georgia Dome and $57 million to the World Congress Center, and league officials quickly decided to move the Saturday and Sunday sessions to Alexander Coliseum on Georgia Tech's campus. Georgia, which had gone 4-12 in SEC regular-season games, upset Kentucky and then stunned Mississippi State that night in the second semifinal.

Dennis Felton's Bulldogs completed the unprecedented run with a Sunday shocking of Arkansas.

Felton was fired within the next year and replaced by current coach Mark Fox, who hopes that Atlanta isn't gone for good as an SEC basketball host. The Georgia Dome certainly seems out of the equation as a future site, as it could be imploded as early as 2017 or '18 to make room for a new home for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

"On the years when it has not been in Nashville, I think Atlanta has done equally as well in hosting the tournament," Fox said. "Is the new facility being built for the Falcons going to be able to accommodate basketball, or will Philips Arena be an option? I would love to see the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia still be able to host the tournament.

"Until that's determined, we'll hope that this last one is a memorable one."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

 

March 13, 2014

 

 
 

 

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