- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Georgia Bulldogs did a lot more than just sneak in the back door of this NCAA tournament. They climbed up the fire escape, jimmied open a window, slid down the laundry chute — and landed smack at center court.

There’s no way the Dawgs should have been at Verizon Center yesterday, preparing for their first-round matchup in the West region — yes, pod people, West region — against Xavier. In fact, heading into the SEC tournament after a 4-12 conference season, they weren’t even considered NIT worthy.

Only eight scholarship players remained on the roster. Coach Dennis Felton, meanwhile, looked in danger of losing his job. Yup, Georgia had Early Exit written all over it as it lined up last Thursday night to play a 21-9 Mississippi team with genuine NCAA aspirations.

But then strange stuff started happening — as it often does at March Madness time. Stuff like a tornado, the first in Atlanta history, damaging the roof of the Georgia Dome. Stuff like the Bulldogs being forced to play two games in one day after their quarterfinal had to be postponed. Stuff like the Dawgs having to survive overtime twice — not to mention the constant foul problems of their most indispensable player, point guard Sundiata Gaines.

Felton — of the Surrattsville, Md., Feltons — knew from the start that winning four games in the tourney would be “a miracle accomplishment.” But once the schedule was reworked and the action moved to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, he realized it was even bigger than that, “that it would be a historical event in college basketball if we could somehow do it.”

And so, for the Georgia Bulldogs, the SEC tournament turned into an AAU jamboree. (Complete with crowds of barely a thousand in some instances after the conference limited attendance to friends, family and select others.) As center Dave Bliss, one of the team’s two seniors, put it, the players had all played in their youth in “a lot of tournaments with multiple games in a day. We just took it as a challenge.”

It was Bliss’ banker with less than a second left in overtime that enabled Georgia to survive Round 1 — after blowing a 13-point second half lead. Then came the Longest Day, the Saturday doubleheader against Kentucky and, after a brief respite, Mississippi State. Gaines fouled out of both games, but the Bulldogs somehow persevered, stunning the Wildcats in OT on an improbable 3-pointer by freshman guard Zac Swansey with 1.2 seconds to go, then rallying in the final two minutes to beat another NCAA-bound team, Mississippi State.

In between, Felton said, “We just wanted to get back to the hotel as quickly as possible — so we could get off our feet and replenish fluids and nutrition. As far as preparation is concerned, we weren’t able to come close to doing what we normally do to prepare for an opponent. We just focused on continuing to play the kind of basketball we were playing … and on convincing the players they could really control the outcome and not succumb to fatigue.”

The championship game, amazingly enough, was the easiest of the bunch. Georgia jumped in front of Arkansas 18-5 and never let the Razorbacks get closer than six points thereafter. And now here they are in Washington, “still kinda riding the emotion of last week,” said Bliss, and utterly unconcerned about their 14th seed, the lowest ever given to a team from a major conference. Heck, when you’ve overcome the dismissal of two starters (for academic indifference), a 13-16 regular season record, a tornado and a twinbill, what’s a 14-seed?

Let’s not forget, this is the same program that, just five years ago, was a national punch line because of the shenanigans of Jim Harrick and his assistant/son. Every college-aged male in America back then wanted to sign up for Jim Jr.’s infamous course, Coaching Principles and Strategies for Retaining Your Athletic Eligibility — I mean, Strategies of Basketball. It was the easiest “A” at the University of Georgia … as long as you knew how many halves there were in a game.

The entire school was embarrassed by that fiasco — by the NCAA penalties and forfeited wins, by the mockery it made of a UGa. education. And Felton, hugely successful at Western Kentucky before coming to Athens, has had to clean up the mess. Booting his top two returning scorers — Takais Brown and Mike Mercer — off the squad last fall was part of that process, painful as it was.

“I think everybody was a little worried about our season at that point,” Bliss said. “Everybody had to change their roles, and we struggled with that.”

To which Gaines added, “We had a lot of games down the stretch that we couldn’t close out, and the reason was that we had so many young players. But in the [SEC] tournament we were able to finish. … Now we’re just enjoying the moment and trying not to get overwhelmed. We just want to play the way we did in the SEC tournament.”

Easier said than done, of course, given the competition that lies ahead — the 27-6 Musketeers for openers, with Duke and UCLA looming later in the bracket. But even if Georgia’s story ends here, it’s still a whale of a tale — a certified Historical Event, like the coach said.

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