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How a college basketball game saved hundreds of lives from a tornado in March 2008

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — March Madness is officially here, and it is a very exciting time of the year.

On the eve of the round of 64, we want to take a look back at when one play in a men’s college basketball game saved many lives from incoming severe weather.

Madness was certainly bestowed upon Atlanta, GA during an SEC men’s basketball tournament game in March 2008 when a tornado passed dangerously close to the site of the game. This occurred the week before the 2008 NCAA tournament was set to start.

On the night of Friday, Mar. 14, 2008, conference tournament play in college basketball was heating up. Mississippi State was slated to take on Alabama in the SEC quarterfinals at the Georgia Dome (now Mercedes-Benz Stadium) in Atlanta.

The game was kept relatively close, and with two seconds left in regulation, Alabama senior guard Mykal Riley hit a jumper three-point shot to send it to overtime. This shot would prove to be a critical moment as threatening weather was approaching the immediate Atlanta downtown area from the northwest.

A supercell had developed well ahead of the main storm system it was associated with. This dangerous cell would prompt a tornado warning for Atlanta at 9:26 PM EDT indicating the potential for a tornado. At 9:38 PM EDT, a strong EF2 tornado touched down just west of the intersection of Joseph E. Boone Boulevard NW and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard NW.

By 9:40 PM, the tornado was passing just barely north of the Georgia Dome by no more than roughly 200 yards. At the time of the tornado passing by, the game was paused with 2:11 left in overtime. The tornado ended up ripping panels from the exterior of the building and tore two holes in the roof of the dome. This caused insulation to fall and the scoreboard and catwalks suspended from the roof to sway.

The broadcast of the game picked up much of the dramatic events unfolding on camera. The Georgia Dome public announcer was mentioning that severe weather was in the area and that a tornado warning was in effect. One important thing to note was that the broadcasters even mentioned that they were hearing the sound of a locomotive passing by and relating it to what a tornado sounded like.

The game was postponed for 64 minutes before it was able to conclude with Mississippi State narrowly beating Alabama 69-67. Georgia was scheduled to play Kentucky on the night of Mar. 14, but it had to be moved to Saturday, Mar. 15. This specific game and the rest of the SEC tournament would have to be played at Georgia Tech due to the storm damage.

This tornado also did damage to the CNN Center, Georgia World Congress Center, Omni Hotel, and the Phillips Arena (now State Farm Arena) where an Atlanta Hawks game was ongoing. Twenty-seven people were injured with one person being killed.

Mykal Riley’s three-point shot at the end of regulation was considered to have saved many lives by keeping people in the Georgia Dome and not being outside in major danger from the tornado. It is still incredible that one play in a sports game became a life-saving moment for hundreds of people, and the combination of sports and weather overall can be wild.