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SEC tourney run leaves Dawgs coach speechless

POSTED: March 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.
The Associated Press/

Georgia coach Dennis Felton, shown here shouting instructions to his players during during a game earlier this season, was unable to speak Monday after the Bulldogs' run through the SEC tournament. Georgia will play Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament at 12:20 p.m. Thursday.

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ATLANTA — Dennis Felton had nothing to say Monday, which was certainly understandable.

No one could blame the Georgia coach for being speechless about his team’s improbable, inspiring, unprecedented run through the Southeastern Conference’s tornado tournament.

Actually, though, Felton’s silent treatment wasn’t by choice. After prodding and cajoling the Bulldogs to heights no one could have imagined just four days earlier, he finally gave out.

"He has no voice, not even a little growl," assistant coach Pete Herrmann said. "He’s trying to get that back."

Better hurry, coach. There’s another game to play on Thursday.

Georgia (17-16) is heading to the NCAAs for the first time since 2002, a seemingly lost season turned upside down when the Bulldogs won the SEC tournament and an automatic bid.

To call it a miracle might be a bit of a stretch. But not by much.

"You’re talking about one of the more incredible stories in college basketball this season, maybe the best," Florida coach Billy Donovan marveled. "Their story is the kind of thing you talk about when you go out to give motivational speeches, when you have a mountain to climb and don’t think you can climb it. The mountain they climbed as a program, as a team, is truly remarkable."

After winning only four SEC games during the regular season, the Bulldogs matched that total during four thrilling, frightening, frustrating and ultimately glorious days in Atlanta.

The story will be told for years to come:

A last-place team and a coach fighting for his job win their first game on a shot with drops with less than a second to go in overtime. Then, while waiting to play the following night, a tornado rips through the Georgia Dome on its destructive march through downtown Atlanta. The game is postponed and the tournament is hastily moved to a much-smaller coliseum at nearby Georgia Tech — the Bulldogs’ bitter in-state rival.

From there, it only gets better. Much to Felton’s chagrin, the SEC draws up a new schedule that has one team playing a doubleheader Saturday. That turns out to be Georgia, which beats Kentucky for the first time ever in the conference tournament, again going to OT. The Bulldogs sneak in a nap, then return six hours later to knock off Mississippi State, which won the SEC West.

Georgia catches a bit of a break when regular-season champ Tennessee is eliminated in the semifinals, but there’s still NCAA-bound Arkansas waiting in the championship game. Playing their third game in less than 28 hours, the Bulldogs race out to an early 19-point lead and hold on to win the conference tourney for the first time since 1983.

Next up is third-seeded Xavier in the opening round of the NCAAs.

"They never stopped believing in themselves," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "That was no smoke and mirrors. They were better on four nights than all four teams they played against."

On Monday, more tidbits from the amazing weekend emerged.

The team’s regular bus driver came down with a severe case of the flu before the title game, forcing the school to call in a replacement. When the Bulldogs arrived at the arena, the fill-in driver ordered everyone to take their luggage because he had other stops to make.

"We’re talking about going in to play in the SEC finals, and he’s telling us, ‘I’ve got to go get the track team, I’ve got to get the baseball team. Get that stuff off of here,"’ Herrmann said, able to laugh about it now. "Here we are, on this tremendous run, and we’ve got to get all our luggage off the bus and leave in the parking lot at Georgia Tech."

The victory was especially meaningful to Georgia’s two seniors, Sundiata Gaines and Dave Bliss. Both were there at the beginning of a massive rebuilding job, and it looked as though their gritty careers would end without even a sniff of the NCAA tournament. No wonder they looked so happy during the celebration.

Herrmann also remembered a player who wasn’t there. Kevin Brophy was supposed to be part of this senior class, but he was killed two summers ago in a car accident.

"Dave and I reflected on that in the locker room," Herrmann said. "I choked up for a few moments when thinking about that."

In a sense, this makes up for the NCAA tournament Georgia missed in 2003. The Bulldogs won 19 games that year and surely would have received a postseason bid, but allegations of major wrongdoing began to emerge late in the season. Coach Jim Harrick’s son sent illicit payments to a player, and also taught a sham course that turned Georgia into a national laughingstock.

For those who might have forgotten, the class was "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball," which included such strenuous questions on its final exam as "How many halves are in a college basketball game?" and "How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?"

Harrick lost his job and the Bulldogs landed on NCAA probation. Enter Felton, who came from Western Kentucky with a mandate to clean things up.

"Dennis inherited one of the biggest messes that has ever been inherited," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "What he’s done there under very adverse circumstances is extremely admirable."

It wasn’t easy. The Bulldogs bottomed out at 8-20 in Felton’s second season, winning just two games in the SEC. They managed 19 wins a year ago and played in the NIT, raising hopes of a breakthrough season. But, in keeping with his no-nonsense nature, Felton kicked two of his best players off the team for breaking team rules. Another player quit and two promising freshmen were lost to season-ending injuries.

With only eight scholarship players, Georgia staggered through a 13-16 regular season and finished last in the SEC East. Going into the conference tournament, there was plenty of speculation that Felton’s next loss would be his last with the Bulldogs.

Not anymore.

Not after that amazing weekend in Atlanta.



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