Bulldogs holds off Razorbacks for first NCAA berth since 2002

ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia lingered on the home court of its bitter rival, even after cutting down the nets and donning the hats and T-shirts of a championship weekend. The Bulldogs wanted to find out where they would be playing next.

Imagine that.

Georgia is heading to the NCAA tournament.

After enduring a tornado, a change of venue and a doubleheader, the gritty Bulldogs provided one last surprise in the finale of an improbable Southeastern Conference tournament, building a big lead in the first half and holding on for a 66-57 victory over Arkansas to claim their first NCAA bid since 2002.

"We showed everybody what we were made of," Bulldogs guard Billy Humphrey said. "Right now, I feel like we can beat anybody."

The Bulldogs (17-16) became just the third team in the tournament's modern era to win four games in four days -- well, actually it was four wins in three days since they had to play two on the same day, an impromptu bit of scheduling forced by a tornado that slammed into the Georgia Dome.

When it was done, Georgia sliced down the nets on the home court of Georgia Tech, which provided a replacement venue for the tournament after the dome was damaged Friday night. The Bulldogs remained on the court after the ceremony, watching the NCAA selection show on the video board above the court.

"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."

Arkansas (22-11) beat Vanderbilt and regular-season champion Tennessee on its way to the final, good enough for its third straight NCAA appearance. The Razorbacks, seeded ninth in the East Region, face Indiana at Raleigh, N.C., on Friday.

Who could have envisioned Georgia also being part of March Madness? Then again, who could have imagined the SEC championship being decided at an Atlantic Coast Conference school in an arena that wasn't even half-filled?

The Bulldogs, who beat as many SEC teams at the tournament as they did during the entire regular season, are seeded 14th in the West and will face third-seeded Xavier at Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

"We can take Xavier!" Terrance Woodbury said. "We can do it!"

Woodbury scored 16 points and the Bulldogs headed to the NCAAs for the first time since the scandalous era of former coach Jim Harrick, which landed the program on probation and prompted it to decline a certain postseason trip with a 19-win team in 2003.

Felton took over as coach, with a mandate to clean things up. But when the Bulldogs finished last in the SEC East this season, there was plenty of speculation he would be out of the job as soon as the team made its expected exit from the league tournament.

Nothing went as expected in Atlanta, however.

The devastating tornado, which rumbled over the Georgia Dome and wreaked havoc downtown, forced a postponement of Georgia's quarterfinal game against Kentucky. Not only that, the tournament had to be moved to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on Georgia Tech's nearby campus because of fears the dome wasn't safe.

The revised schedule, which was vehemently opposed by Felton, forced the Georgia-Kentucky winner to play two games on Saturday. Amazingly, the Bulldogs knocked off the Wildcats for the first time ever in the tournament, then came back six hours later to beat SEC West champion Mississippi State.

Never showing any signs of fatigue, Georgia completed the run against Arkansas, racing to a 19-point lead and going on to their easiest victory of the weekend, leading all the way. The Bulldogs won their first three games by a total of 10 points with two decided in overtime.

Now, Felton's job is safe. Athletic director Damon Evans gave him a hug on the court.

"He's our basketball coach. He's going to be our basketball coach," Evans said. "Of course he'll be back."

The Bulldogs started quick again, the third straight game in which they built a double-digit lead in the first half. Woodbury hit consecutive 3-pointers and tournament MVP Sundiata Gaines scored with a nifty move through the lane, putting Georgia up 28-9 just past the midway point of the opening half.

"I thought Woodbury was just spectacular," said first-year Arkansas coach John Pelphrey.

The Razorbacks cut the margin to 36-26 by halftime and closed to 56-53 -- the closest they had been since the opening minutes -- when Sonny Weems scored on a drive to the hoop.

Weems and Darian Townes led Arkansas with 17 points apiece.

Georgia, it seemed, was finally running out of gas. But the Bulldogs had come too far to let the second tournament championship in school history slip away.

Albert Jackson went in for a dunk with 2:51 remaining after a wild sequence in which Georgia missed twice but kept coming up with the loose balls. Humphrey sealed it with a 3, getting off the shot after running down most of the shot clock.

"Georgia played those two games yesterday, but I don't think them being tired had anything to do with it," Weems said. "When you're competing for a conference championship, you always have to come out and play good."

After senior Dave Bliss swatted away Arkansas' final shot, the celebration began in a cozy arena that wasn't even half-filled. Jackson jumped into Bliss' arms. Jeremy Price carried a teammate around the court.

Instead of worrying about his job, Felton was the last to climb the ladder during the net-cutting ceremony. He waved the prized nylon above his head for the cheering Georgia fans.

With no way to accommodate all those with tickets once the tournament moved from the 26,000-seat dome to the 9,191-seat coliseum, the SEC only let in those with working credentials, the bands and cheerleaders, and family and friends of the players.

Georgia had hardly any support at its first two games, but there must have been at least 2,000 wearing red and black on Sunday -- more than half of the 3,700 in attendance.

"SEC! SEC! SEC!" they chanted as the final seconds ticked away.