Georgia leads improbable group to NCAA tournament Print
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Sunday, 16 March 2008 23:07
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 ATLANTA (AP) -Billy Humphrey stood on the court of a bitter rival, looking up at the video board along with the rest of his Georgia teammates. He didn't care his team was seeded 14th in the NCAA tournament. He didn't mind facing powerhouse Xavier in the opening round.
After all the Bulldogs had been through, what's the big deal?
``Right now,'' Humphrey said, ``I feel like we can beat anybody.''
Georgia showed plenty of grit during the Southeastern Conference tournament, somehow managing to win four games in spite of a devastating tornado, an impromptu change of venue and a grueling doubleheader. When it was done, the Bulldogs (17-16) had earned a most unlikely bid to the NCAA tournament, beating Arkansas 66-57 in the championship game Sunday.
``We can take Xavier!'' proclaimed Terrance Woodbury, already looking ahead to a Thursday matchup with the Musketeers after scoring 16 points in the SEC final. ``We can do it!''
The Bulldogs weren't the only farfetched team to make the NCAA tournament. The first-timer club includes four new members. Drake broke a 37-year drought. Cal State Fullerton is in for the first time since 1978. And Baylor might be the most remarkable of all, claiming a spot five years after one of the worst scandals in college basketball history.
``We persevered,'' coach Scott Drew said.
Perseverance. That's a word that applies to all The Improbables.
American, Maryland-Baltimore County, Texas-Arlington and Portland State will get their first sampling of March Madness. Sure, they're all seeded last or next-to-last in their respective regions, so one-and-done is a distinct possibility across the board.
But right now, the score is zero-zero.
``We know what we're capable of doing, and we're going to go out there and do it, no matter who our opponent is,'' said UMBC forward Cavell Johnson, whose team faces Big East power Georgetown on Friday. ``All we needed to do was get our foot in the door, and we're going to take advantage of it.''
That's the beauty of the Big Dance, which opens up its 65-team field to the proletariat by handing out automatic bids to conferences such as the America East and the Southland, thereby creating all sorts of Rocky-themed stories and the illusion that everyone has a chance - at least until tipoff.
``You come to some places and they have all these championships and NCAA tournament appearances,'' said Anthony Vereen, whose 25 points led Texas-Arlington to the Southland tournament title Sunday. ``Then you come here and look in the record books and it says under championships, 'None, none, none.' So it feels pretty good to win this one.''
None, none, none - that would have been the answer to this pre-SEC tournament question: In three words or less, what are Georgia's chances of winning the championship?
After all, the Bulldogs finished last in the SEC East with a 4-12 conference record, and no sixth seed had made it beyond the semifinals since the league went to divisional play in the early 1990s. Only two teams in the tournament's modern era had won four games in four days to claim the title, another bit of history working against Georgia.
Well, the Bulldogs not only did the unthinkable - they actually won four games in three days, playing a doubleheader Saturday after a tornado slammed into Georgia Dome the night before and forced a postponement of the last quarterfinal game.
Fearing the building wasn't safe, the SEC picked up and moved to nearby Georgia Tech, which was spared by the storm. The tournament finished up at cozy Alexander Memorial Coliseum before mostly empty seats; the place wasn't big enough to accommodate all the ticket-buying customers, so none of them were let in. The title game was played before a crowd estimated at 3,700, all of them getting in with tickets provided to family and friends.
The Bulldogs led all the way, racing out to a 19-point lead in the first half and holding on when Arkansas made a late run.
``It's really gratifying,'' said coach Dennis Felton, who had only eight scholarship players remaining after injuries, defections and disciplinary problems. ``Regardless of how much adversity we went through and how much we had to go through as a team, the guys we had left had enough character to keep fighting for another day.''
The Bulldogs got to cut down the nets at the home court of their in-state rival. Then, as if rubbing salt in Georgia Tech's wound, everyone in red and black hung around to watch the NCAA selection show on the video board hanging above the court.
In a way, this makes up for the tournament Georgia missed out on in 2003, when a 19-win team coached by Jim Harrick was kept at home by the administration after embarrassing allegations came to light late in the season. Among the charges: illegal payments to a player and a sham class taught to athletes by Harrick's son, which turned the school into a national punch line.
There was nothing funny about the scandal going on at Baylor about the same time. One of the team's player, Patrick Dennehy, was murdered. A teammate admitted doing it and was sent to prison.
The sordid affair opened up an ugly can of worms, which included secretly recorded tapes in which coach Dave Bliss was heard trying to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer. By then, school investigators already had determined Bliss paid up to $40,000 in tuition for Dennehy and another player, and had improperly solicited $87,000 from boosters.
Drew was brought in to rebuild the program, and it took just five years to make it to the NCAAs. The Bears got in for the first time in 20 years and only the second time since 1950.
The wait was excruciating, though, as one school after another was called. Finally, a single slot remained.
It went to Baylor.
``It was a tough way to get in, but we got in,'' school president John Lilley said. ``Part of this is just confidence that we could come back from less than nothing and make it.''
---
AP Sports Writers David Ginsburg in Baltimore and Stephen Hawkins in Waco, Texas contributed to this report.
 

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