TAMPA — The St. Pete Times Forum was far from filled for Thursday's games, but organizers contend it was a good start for the four-day event.
Challenged by a difficult economy and mediocre seasons by many league teams, attendance was 11,071 for the afternoon session and 12,152 in the evening, averaging 10,000 below the 21,655-seat capacity. Officials pointed out that afternoon attendance was 36 percent higher than the tournament's last appearance in Florida, 1990 in Orlando, but Kentucky was on probation and didn't play in that tournament and Florida was knocked out in the first round.
"I think it's been a good first day," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. "We've had some exciting games. I think we're off to a good start. People have enjoyed the weather and (SEC) fanfare. I think we're continuing to build momentum for what's going to be an exciting SEC championship."
Kentucky won Thursday, ensuring that one of the league's most-supported teams will remain for another day.
"You could definitely tell in the first session we've got a ton of visitors here," Higgins said. "And as we continue to progress it's going to crescendo with Sunday."
SAD FAREWELL: Thursday's loss to Mississippi State marked the end of careers for seniors Corey Butler and Terrance Woodbury, and most likely the final game at Georgia for interim coach Pete Herrmann. Herr- mann took over six weeks ago when Dennis Felton was fired.
The 40-year coaching veteran said he's unsure what his next move will be, but he believes he still has a lot to offer as a coach. When the game ended, Herrmann hugged every player on the Georgia bench.
"I thought it was a very tough day when I took over for Dennis because we had been on the court 11 straight years, every practice, every game," Herrmann said. "But this was tough because I had a lot of belief in the integrity of these players and what they went through for six weeks. They kept pushing forward. They had some tremendous wins. They had some dark times where they didn't play very well. But they always hung in there."
For the players, who had the high of winning an SEC title last season, then losing their coach, it was a bittersweet ending.
"I would have loved to win this game and probably win another championship," said Woodbury, who had 14 points and seven rebounds. "Just with all we've been through, I would have liked to keep playing right now. I would like to go back to the (NCAA) Tournament, but I'll never be able to do that again."
MOVING UP THE CHARTS: MSU coach Rick Stansbury moved past longtime MSU coach Richard Williams for games coached. Williams coached 354 games in 12 seasons, compiling a 191-163 record. Stansbury has coached 355 games, with a 228-127 record in 11 seasons.
For the record, Stansbury didn't seem all that impressed with the accomplishment.
"I've given it zero thought," Stansbury said. "Didn't even know about it. That means, hey, here's what it means: It means I've been here a long time to do that. That means I've had some good players, good assistant coaches and my AD hasn't run me out of town yet. That's what that means. It's pretty simple."
MEEKS' SUPERLATIVES: With a game-high 25 points in a win over Ole Miss, Kentucky senior guard Jodie Meeks has 790 points this season, surpassing Jamal Mashburn (767) for the second-highest single season total. Dan Issel is UK's leader with 948 in 1969-70. Meeks has 1,182 career points.
TAMPA NOT SO PLEASANT: Vanderbilt may not be interested in returning to the St. Pete Times Forum anytime soon. The Commodores lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 21, 83-62 to Siena at the same venue. On Thursday, the No. 5-seeded Commodores, who entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch, lost to No. 4 Alabama.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com