By Ben Sullivan
Chris Chiozza took the ball the length of the court with a four ticks left on the clock, trailing by two points in overtime, and leapt off the ground just past the 3-point line, launching the most important shot of his collegiate career … one-handed.
The buzzer sounded, and the ball swished. No. 4 seed Florida had just beaten No. 8 Wisconsin, 84-83, in the NCAA tournament’s most thrilling game to date last night at Madison Square Garden — and the tournament’s first overtime game.
“I knew I had four seconds to get up the court,” Chiozza said. “That’s what I was focused on. I was trying to get to the rim, but they did a good job of bumping me and slowing me.
“That was the only shot that I had. I had to take it.”
Florida had no timeouts to call, so the play developed organically, following a pair of Nigel Hayes free throws that put the Badgers up by two. The Gators work on late-game situations like this, with their guards, adjusting the age-old coaching adage of “a dribble per second” because his guards are, well, too quick for that.
Chiozza, for example, knows he can go the length of the court in four seconds in four to six dribbles.
“And boy, he utilized them,” Florida coach Mike White said. “He made an unbelievable play.”
It was, and it followed a similarly unbelievable play that sent the game into overtime to begin with. Wisconsin had been down 12 with 4:15 left in regulation before completing a most improbable comeback, capped by a most improbable shot: Badgers senior former walk-on Zac Showalter leaping in the air, lofting up the eventual game-tying 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left.
“It was a deflating shot,” White said.
Wisconsin then carried that momentum into the overtime period, building a five-point lead and earning a series of trips to the free throw line.
But Florida didn’t “freak out,” as White put it, though Wisconsin “had all the momentum in the world,” underscoring the evolution he’s seen from his team over the past few months. He’s watched them mature and figure out ways to win games. Little things, like Canyon Barry, known for his underhand free throws, hitting two from the line and then zipping down the court to block a Khalil Iverson shot and keep Florida within a score. Or KeVaughn Allen’s career night, 35 points that kept Florida in the game when the team trailed early and lifted the Gators as they built their second-half lead.
Florida will face No. 7 South Carolina tomorrow with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
The Gators’ deep March run was a bit unexpected from those outside the program — they lost pivotal center John Egbunu to a season-ending knee injury in mid-February — and for a coach making his NCAA tournament debut. Second-year head coach Mike White, who replaced Hall of Famer Billy Donovan, had never even coached in the big dance as an assistant coach.
Florida’s Elite Eight appearance is its first since 2014.