By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Five years ago, a confluence of unlikely events turned the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament into the most memorable on record.
You know the story: During the 2008 tournament, a tornado ripped through Atlanta and hit the Georgia Dome, and if not for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Alabama’s Mykal Riley, the destruction might have been measured in more than just dollar amounts. And things only got crazier, as last-place Georgia went on to win the tournament – on its arch-rival’s home court.
Sunday at 4 p.m. on ESPN – and again at 7 on ESPNU – the story will be retold in “Miracle 3,” the latest installment in the SEC “Storied” documentary series. Mississippi State, of course, played a central role in the central event of that March weekend.
The Bulldogs were on the verge of beating Alabama just before the tornado struck, leading by three points in the waning seconds. Per his usual practice, then-MSU coach Rick Stansbury wanted his team to foul Alabama, but it didn’t happen.
Instead, Riley put up a shot that went around the rim, off the backboard and through the net as the horn sounded. Had that shot not fallen, thousands of oblivious fans would’ve walked right into the teeth of a tornado.
The film recounts what happened when the tornado hit, as confusion and terror initially reigned. Daily Journal sports reporter Gregg Ellis, who is now MSU’s basketball media relations director, was courtside when the tornado hit. At first, he thought the loud rumbling sound was coming from the MARTA train station next door.
Then he saw pieces of the Georgia Dome roof falling. “It looked like snow,” he told me. And then he saw the scoreboards swinging, and light bulbs popping.
And then a big bolt fell from somewhere high above and smacked the table between Ellis and another reporter, Jim Mashek.
“It was just surreal,” Ellis said.
It could’ve been painful, too. But had anyone gone outside when the tornado hit, obviously that could’ve been deadly. In the film, noted Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore said having the streets and sidewalks full of fans when that twister hit would’ve been a “recipe for disaster.”
“This could’ve been a massive human catastrophe had that game not gone into overtime,” said John Oxendine, a Georgia state fire marshal.
Stansbury, whose team missed two chances to foul at the end of regulation, called it an “absolute blessing that we didn’t foul him.”
They finished the game, and MSU wound up winning when Riley’s jumper at the OT buzzer just missed. But the final game of the night, Georgia versus Kentucky, was postponed until the following day.
Ellis said what was normally a five-minute drive back to the downtown Marriott took an hour and 45 minutes. He didn’t fully comprehend the damage until the next day.
The Georgia Dome was deemed unusable, so the SEC moved the event to Georgia Tech’s much smaller Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Georgia, playing on its rival’s home court, beat both Kentucky and MSU on Saturday and topped Arkansas on Sunday to win the title.
The film does a good job of capturing the drama of that March night and how much worse it could’ve been. And it captures the whole essence of that weekend, of how the teams, SEC officials and everyone else involved had to overcome some very unexpected events.
ESPN reporter Mark Schlabach said it well when he noted that what the SEC did to keep the tournament going was just as miraculous as Georgia’s run. And might I add, just as miraculous as Riley’s fateful shot.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.