Storm rips holes in Ge­or­gia Dome, forc­ing SEC to move tour­na­ment

SEC games re­lo­cated to Ge­or­gia Tech

The Covington News - - Sports - By Paul New­berry

AT­LANTA — Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi State were locked in a thrilling game at the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence tour­na­ment. Sud­denly, ev­ery­one started look­ing to­ward the roof of the Ge­or­gia Dome, won­der­ing where that rum­bling sound was com­ing from.

What they saw was ter­ri­fy­ing.

Metal scaf­fold­ing and a tem­po­rary video board sway­ing back and forth. The huge fab­ric roof flap­ping like a flag in a stiff breeze. Two large pan­els above the up­per deck start­ing to peel away. Small chunks of in­su­la­tion and de­bris drift­ing to­ward the court.

A pos­si­ble tor­nado, said the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice.

No doubt about it, said those who went through it — play­ers, coaches and some 18,000 fans.

“I thought it was a tor­nado or a ter­ror­ist at­tack,” said Mis­sis­sippi State guard Ben Hans­brough, who was guard­ing Alabama’s Mykal Ri­ley when the clat­ter be­gan above their heads, grow­ing into an an­gry growl that, yes, sounded like an ap­proach­ing freight train.

The storm forced the SEC to take the un­prece­dented step of mov­ing the rest of the tour­na­ment to Ge­or­gia Tech’s Alexan­der Me­mo­rial Coli­seum. Be­cause of the smaller ca­pac­ity— 9,100 com­pared with the dome’s bas­ket­ball ca­pac­ity of 26,000 — there was no way to divvy up the tick­ets and keep ev­ery­one happy.

So, only play­ers’ fam­i­lies, cheer­lead­ers, bands and those with work­ing cre­den­tials will be al­lowed to at­tend, prob­a­bly no more than 2,000 per game. It will be a sur­real set­ting for the re­main­ing games and surely cause plenty of back­lash from schools— es­pe­cially Ken­tucky — that had tens of thou­sands of boost­ers in the city.

The Wild­cats faith­ful didn’t even get a chance to see their team play.

“We’re hope­ful that fans will re­al­ize what hap­pened tonight,” said SEC as­so­ci­ate com­mis- sioner Charles Bloom, adding there would be a re­fund pol­icy. “But we know there will be some frus­tra­tion for the fans.”

The storm struck while Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi State were in over­time of their quar­ter­fi­nal game. They were able to fin­ish af­ter a de­lay of just more than an hour — Mis­sis­sippi State won 69-67 — but the SEC called off Ge­or­giaKen­tucky be­cause of con­cerns that more strong cells were clos­ing in on the city and the build­ing may have sus­tained struc­tural dam­age.

Now, ei­ther Ge­or­gia or Ken­tucky will have to play a dou­ble­header Satur­day. They will meet at noon EDT, with the win­ner fac­ing Mis­sis­sippi State about nine hours later. Ten­nessee and Arkansas will meet in the other semi­fi­nal, sched­uled for 6 p.m. Satur­day.

“A ma­jor, ma­jor chal­lenge” is how Ge­or­gia coach Den­nis Fel­ton de­scribed it on his way out of the dome.

The cham­pi­onship will be played to­day, as planned, but two hours later at 3 p.m.

The evening ses­sion was any­thing but rou­tine. Na­tional Weather Ser­vice of­fi­cials called the storm a pos­si­ble tor­nado, and winds were clocked at up to 60 mph as it moved through the city.

“We planned for a lot of things,” Mis­sis­sippi State coach Rick Stans­bury said.“We didn’t plan for a tor­nado.”

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