Gaines leads Georgia to SEC Championship

ATLANTA – As he has all season, senior point guard Sundiata Gaines carried Georgia on Sunday, but there's not much glory in carrying a team to a 13-16 regular season record.

This was different. This time, Gaines led his team to a championship, with a 66-57 victory over Arkansas in the SEC Tournament championship game.

"Look at Georgia. Going dancing, going dancing," Gaines said. "We've just done so much, and man… You can't put it into words. It's unbelievable."

The Bulldogs were made the No. 14 seed in the West Regional. They will play No. 3 seed Xavier in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Georgia celebrated its first conference tournament title since 1983 and third SEC title in history by cutting down the nets at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, home of its arch-rival Georgia Tech. The final two days of the tournament were played on Tech's campus due to storm damage suffered by the Georgia Dome.

"That makes it just a little better, winning it at Georgia Tech," sophomore center Albert Jackson said.

It's hard to imagine how it could get any better. The Bulldogs (17-16) were given up for dead one week ago. Even head coach Dennis Felton's wife didn't believe it was possible.

"No, never," said Melanie Felton, shaking her head as the coaches, players and their families celebrated around her.

Gaines, a senior from Jamaica, N.Y., was named the tournament's MVP, but the list of heroes for the Bulldogs is long, stretching from grinding senior Dave Bliss to big-shot Zac Swansey to newfound scoring threat Terrance Woodbury.

"When I think of Sundiata and David, it makes me want to cry actually because both of them have been through so much from day one and to see them rewarded in the nick of time, it is incredibly gratifying as their coach," Dennis Felton said. "I love them. I love them for what they've done these four years."

The Bulldogs have become the darlings of the national media thanks to the winding road they followed to this title, and even gained the attention of their hometown fan base on Sunday. After not being able to fill out their allotment of 400 tickets for the first two games, Georgia took advantage of an expanded ticket disbursement and had more than 1,000 of the 3,700 fans in attendance cheering them on against the Razorbacks.

"We weren't going to be denied no matter what happened," Bliss said. "Tornado. Two games in one day. Forget about it."

In the last four days, Georgia has won as many SEC games as it did in the 16-game regular season conference schedule. It become the first No. 6 seed to win the tournament in its current format, beating Western Division champion Mississippi State and the No. 2 seed from each division (Kentucky and Arkansas) along the way.

"There hasn't been any time to think about the experience," said Felton, who is making his first NCAA Tournament appearance as the Bulldogs head coach. "We got to a point where we just got singularly focused on winning the next possession."

It goes without saying that Felton secured his job status, which was very much in doubt a week ago, but athletics director Damon Evans was asked to say it anyway.

"He's our basketball coach," Evans said. "He's going to be our basketball coach."

Georgia's first three games of the tournament were decided on baskets in the final 10 seconds and two of those went to overtime. It looked like Georgia finally would have a laugher Sunday. It led by as many as 19 points in the first half, but the Razorbacks cut that lead to three with 4:19 remaining.

Georgia finally stopped a 9-0 Arkansas run when Gaines grabbed and offensive rebound and fed Albert Jackson for a dunk that put the Bulldogs ahead 58-53 with 2:30 left. They put the game away with free throws from there.

Junior Terrance Woodbury, who joined Gaines on the All-Tournament team, led Georgia in scoring for the third time in four games with 16 points.

"In this tournament, he really started to play with a good degree of confidence offensively, and he hit some timely shots," Felton said. "He raised up and made some big threes in this tournament. He was 4-for-5 in this game, and a couple in the first half were momentous and a couple in the second half were back breakers."

This game, however, belonged to Georgia's seniors, who had all but given up on making the NCAA Tournament in their careers.

"It's been unbelievable," Bliss said. "All the things that we've been through over four years were really trying on both of us, but we've kind of stuck together no matter what happened and kind of known at least one person was going to be there no matter what happened. Having that all pay off this weekend was just tremendous for us."

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