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.
“We’re hopeful that fans will realize what happened tonight,” said SEC associate commissioner 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 Georgia-Kentucky 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 Sunday, as planned, but two hours later at 3 p.m.
Earlier Friday, two quarterfinal games were played without any problems. No. 4 Tennessee, the regular-season champion, avoided a major upset when Chris Lofton hit a 3-pointer with 11.4 seconds remaining for an 89-87 victory over South Carolina. The Volunteers advanced to face Arkansas, an 81-75 winner over No. 18 Vanderbilt.
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.”
CBT: Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made it official that he'll be coaching Team USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and he'll also be with Duke at least that long, too.
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