James Banks was the 1983 NCAA East Regional MVP
Jan. 10, 2013
1983 Final Four Team Among Hoops Lettermen Recognized
ATHENS ---- Members of the 1983 Georgia basketball squad will gather this Saturday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their magical run to the NCAA Final Four.
The celebration is a highlight this year of Georgia's annual basketball lettermen's reunion. More than 50 hoops alums will gather for the Bulldogs vs. Mississippi State contest on Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum, some of whose experience dates to the 1940s.
But the spotlight will shine on the group from 1983. The Bulldogs' romp through the SEC Tournament that year, followed by three victories in the NCAA Tournament - including upsets of St. John's and North Carolina - remains the crowning achievement of the Bulldog hoops program.
Then-head coach Hugh Durham will be on hand Saturday and will address the lettermen in a pre-game reception. "I will always be proud of this team for what it accomplished when nobody gave us much of a chance," Durham said. "People started writing us off in February. But our guys hung in there and stayed together as a team. I think we set a standard for future teams at Georgia."
Indeed, even as late as February of 1983, there seemed precious little about that squad that hinted of its greatness. Sure, they had assembled a nice 9-0 record through December, thanks to an easy non-conference slate that included a pair of lightweights disguised by heavyweight names: Georgia Tech and Texas.
As the calendar flipped over to February, however, Georgia lost four straight games and, for the time being, dropped out of contention in the SEC race. "I think we started listening to people telling us how good we were," Durham said. "Someone once said, "Publicity is like poison. It isn't harmful until you swallow it. Well, I thought our team had swallowed it. We had gotten this idea that we were good and that we didn't have to play hard to have success."
There was little debate over which Bulldog got his team headed back in the right direction. Junior guard Vern Fleming flourished in the year that followed Dominique Wilkins' departure to the NBA. By the time the regular season reached its homestretch, there was only one debate about him: whether or not he was indeed the SEC's best all-around player.
It was Fleming who did the most to rescue the Bulldogs from their February swoon. Most observers pointed to the regular-season finale, a 74-59 drubbing of an excellent Tennessee team, as the ignition Georgia used for its run through March. And Fleming, a 6-foot, 5-inch point guard, was front and center that night. The New Yorker finished with 28 points, 22 in the second half, and helped hold UT All-American Dale Ellis to just four points after an 18-point first half.
Rejuvenated, the Bulldogs then steamrolled through Ole Miss, Tennessee and Alabama to win the SEC Tournament championship the next weekend. In the second half of the final, Georgia made 22 of its 26 field-goal attempts against the Crimson Tide. That computes to an otherworldly 85 percent.
"Most coaches are conservative by nature when it comes to what they say to the media," Durham said. "But we played three great games in that tournament. I wouldn't have shortchanged our players by saying otherwise."
Still, almost everyone outside Athens gave the Bulldogs long odds to advance through a regional that featured Big East power St. Johns and lordly North Carolina. They survived an opening game against VCU on a last-second tip-in. The next weekend they dispatched the aforementioned teams with surprising ease.
How good was Georgia that weekend? In the regional championship against Carolina, starting center Terry Fair picked up fouls 2, 3 and 4 in a 2-minute span early in the second half. No problem. Backup Richard Corhen played the last 18 minutes so well that Fair never saw the court again.
Georgia was breathing rarified air, indeed. The Bulldogs had already achieved two unprecedented milestones during the season in winning the SEC Tournament title and making the NCAA playoffs. To reach the Final Four in the school's first-ever try was almost beyond description.
That wave of momentum, unfortunately, came to a halt the next weekend at the Final Four in Albuquerque. N.C. State, which survived a double-overtime win in the first round, a one-pointer in the second round and a harrowing thriller over Virginia in its regional final, apparently had an even greater call to destiny.
The Wolfpack defeated Georgia 67-60 in the first semifinal game of the day, ending the Dogs' historic run. Still, you got the feeling that history would smile upon these Bulldogs, and indeed it still is...30 years on.