Farewell to the Georgia Dome, which was reduced to rubble in the name of progress on Monday in Atlanta.
Yes the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta might be the ninth or 10th wonder of the world. But for 25 years, the Georgia Dome hosted its share of memorable college basketball moments. And even more memorable Gator basketball moments.
The Gators won their second of back-to-back national titles at Georgia Dome in 2007, hoisting the trophy under confetti after dispatching Greg Oden and Michael Conley-led Ohio State 84-75. Corey Brewer was most outstanding player of the Final Four, going 7 of 13 from 3-point range in wins over Ohio State and UCLA.
The Georgia Dome also was the site of UF’s first 2005 SEC Tournament title win in 2005, with Matt Walsh winning tournament MVP honors by scoring 26 points in the title game against Kentucky. Florida won two more SEC Tournament titles at the Georgia Dome in 2007 and 2014. In 2007, the Gators were dominant, never trailing in three games. In 2014, Florida escaped with a one-point win in the tournament title game against Kentucky to cap a perfect 21-0 mark in conference play.
When the SEC Tournament was played at the Georgia Dome regularly from 1995-2009, it would often take players a game or two to get accustomed to shooting there due the cavernous background. My first experience covering an SEC Tournament game there was memorable. In a quarterfinal game in 2004, Florida edged Alabama 75-73 in overtime in a game that ended at one in the morning when Lee Humphrey hit a short putback baseline jumper at the buzzer. The Gators made a run to the SEC Tournament finals that year before falling to Kentucky.
“It was a great stadium, a football stadium,” said former Florida center Chris Richard, a member of UF’s back-to-back 2006 and 2007 title teams. “We were very successful there because we had great teams. Because it was closer to Gainesville, a lot of our fans could drive up to watch us play there, which was great for us too.”
Richard had one of his best career games at the Georgia Dome in the Final Four game against UCLA, when he scored 16 points off the bench going 7 of 7 from the floor. But Richard recalled the tension before the game being as memorable.
“We were coming out of the same tunnel and there was some trash talking going on,” Richard said. “We had beaten them in the finals game the year before. We could be a bit of a trash talking group. That got us fired up a bit.”
Future NBA MVP and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was merely a reserve on UCLA at the time, finishing with just 2 points, 1 rebound and no assists in 8 minutes on the floor. Who would suspect at the time that former Florida coach Billy Donovan, closing in on his second national title, would end up coaching Westbrook with the Thunder eight years later.
A year later, a tornado rocked Atlanta and damaged the Georgia Dome roof on a Friday night during the 2008 SEC Tournament, forcing the rest of the tournament to be moved to Georgia Tech’s campus. Florida was eliminated the night before during its hangover season following the back to back national titles. Donovan, frustrated with his team’s lack of work ethic during the 2007-08 campaign, locked players out of UF’s basketball facility after the SEC Tournament loss to Alabama. With players doing their own laundry at home and practicing at the O’Connell Center, Florida still went on an inspired NIT run before falling to UMass in the tournament semifinals in New York City.
By 2010, the SEC chose to regularly play its basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn. The last SEC Tournament at the dome was in 2014, which Florida won on the way to its fifth Final Four run in school history.
Change, of course, is inevitable. But I’ll take the memories. So long, Georgia Dome. It was fun while it lasted.