In the aftermath, SEC games go on

Saturday, March 15, 2008 at 3:36pm

ATLANTA -- The games, as they always do, went on Saturday.

One day after a tornado ripped through downtown Atlanta, halting play at the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament, Kentucky and Georgia squared off at Alexander Coliseum on the Georgia Tech campus.

The Georgia Dome, where the tournament began, was all but unplayable. Gaping holes were torn into the dome Friday night, nuts and bolts were sheered from the ceiling and scoreboards inside swayed dangerously over the heads of thousands of fans.

The tournament had to continue, however, so Georgia Tech became the makeshift location today. Only media, families, coach, bands, cheerleaders and a few select others were granted entry.

It was a bizarre scene, to say the least. As I walked into the arena today, it felt more like a high school game than an SEC Tournament semifinal game. Attendance was estimated at 1,500.

To put that into perspective, Kentucky draws 23,000 for its annual Midnight Madness practice. To say many Wildcats fans left Atlanta today in a grumpy mood would probably be an understatement.

Then again, perhaps we're all lucky to be alive. News reports today say the tornado was 200 yards wide, generated winds up to 135 miles per hour and wrecked everything in its path.

The setting was surreal last night as those of us inside the Georgia Dome looked up at holes in the walls and felt a breeze swirling through an indoor facility.

I spoke with a Georgia Dome custodian last night who still had shards of glass in his hair after being blown through a window while working on the outside of the building when the tornado struck.

I spoke with a Kentucky fan today who claimed to have been forced to literally dive into a Georgia Dome door last night to avoid the terrible winds, only seconds later to see a ticket-booth worker being restrained by co-workers to keep from being sucked out.

On the way from the Dome to the hotel last night, I peered out the bus window, and the streets looked like a war zone. Stop-sign poles were bent in half. Paneling from the Georgia Dome rested on the ground. Police officers closed various streets.

The tornado struck as Mississippi State and Alabama neared the end of overtime in Friday's first scheduled semifinal games. The roaring sound generated by the wind caused players from both teams to look skyward.

When play was stopped, players and coaches retreated to their locker rooms. Nashville native Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State's star player, grabbed his cell phone and called his mother, who was in stands, to make sure she was safe. She was OK, much to his relief.

During the game, something near the top of the Georgia Dome had caught Gordon's eye.

"I saw something flying," he said. "I thought a vent was broke or something. I've never been in a situation like this."

Mississippi State ended up beating Alabama, but as both teams walked off the floor, the outcome of a basketball game seemed to have little significance.

"We plan for a lot of things," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "We don't plan for a tornado."

You never plan for anything like this. So far, no one is confirmed to have died Friday night. Let's hope it stays that way.

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