Image Credit: @MarchMadness
For a moment early Saturday morning in New York, Florida Gators junior point guard Chris Chiozza became the world’s most famous man in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
That moment actually lasted less than two seconds as Chiozza briefly stood on the block under the hoop pointing to the rafters that contain championship banners and retired jerseys as a buzz enveloped him and took command of his senses.
Talk about an emotional overload. The literal buzzer sounded, the Madison Square Garden crowd erupted, and fingers click-clacked across the nation as everyone watching the most thrilling game of the 2017 NCAA Tournament could not believe what they saw at nearly 1 a.m. on the East Coast.
The man nicknamed “Cheese” handed the Wisconsin Badgers a taste of their own medicine with a strikingly similar yet somehow more extraordinary off-balance, heaving buzzer-beater three to send Florida to the Elite Eight for the ninth time in program history and eighth in as many consecutive opportunities.
“I was really trying to get to the rim,” said Chiozza, recalling how the Gators were only down two, “but they did a good job of bumping me and slowing me down and that was the only shot I had, so I had to take that one.”
Good thing he did.
“For Chris to have the wherewithal to know that he can get all the way the length of the court in four seconds [shows maturity],” head coach Mike White said. “He obviously utilized his speed and quickness and had tremendous composure, of course.”
Chiozza’s heads-up play and penultimate shot seconds earlier atoned for some legitimate sins perpetrated by Florida in the closing minutes of the game.
Chiozza and senior PG Kasey Hill each turned the ball over in the final 62 seconds of regulation. The Gators missed their final five shots from the field in the second half, allowing a 16-4 run and eight unanswered points to tie the game. White refused to foul with the game on the line and UF up three, giving UW the chance to tie it on Zak Showlter’s game-tying three, the one Chiozza answered just over five minutes later.
Even sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, who scored a game-high and career-high 35 points, which also set an NCAA Tournament record for Florida, missed his final five shots from the floor after draining eight straight in clutch fashion.
Despite all that, the Gators maintained their composure, a rarity for this team over the last few seasons and particularly early this campaign.
“We didn’t freak out. And we’ve had games like that where when we had a run against us, you guys have seen it, where we kind of freak out. And we just matured so much,” White said.
Though White made some head-scratching moves late in regulation — such as removing Allen and keeping Hill in the game over the final two minutes, presumably for defense – his best call of the game was reinserting graduate transfer G Canyon Barry during the overtime period.
Barry immediately provided a spark by getting to the line and saved terrible defense on an inbounds pass with the most remarkably athletic play — certainly of the season, likely of his career — in a chase down block that brought visions of LeBron James and kept it a one-score contest. It also immediately led to a Chiozza game-tying layup on the other end.
Between White’s defensive motivation, Allen’s mid-game hero ball and some other-wordly plays to end the contest, Florida has taken a season that was on the brink just two weeks ago and turned it into one that could result in a Final Four berth for the second time in four years.
In order to accomplish that, the Gators have some work cut out for themselves. Considering Florida tipped off at 10:13 p.m. ET on Friday — the latest local start time for a UF non-exhibition game since at least 1998 — and did not finish the contest until minutes before 1 a.m. on Saturday, it will have just 37 hours between games.
That’s good news for the seven-seed South Carolina Gamecocks, which decimated three-seed Baylor 70-50 earlier Friday at MSG.
Florida and South Carolina will meet in a showdown of the nation’s top-four defenses on Sunday at 2:20 p.m. ET live on CBS.
“[It’s going to be] a battle. We’re both two tough defensive teams, and we take pride in the defensive end,” said Chiozza. “We know each other well, so it’s going to be a grind it out game, probably down to the wire just like this one. And it’s just going to be what team’s the toughest one and who can keep the composure and be disciplined the whole 40 minutes.”
The Gators and Gamecocks split their regular-season series with each team winning its home game. Sunday’s de facto rubber match will give Florida a chance to advance to the Final Four for the sixth time in program history, while South Carolina even being this far is a first for its squad.
These teams are not alone in the Elite Eight round, however, as two-seed Kentucky has also made its way in out of the South Region. That puts three Southeastern Conference teams in the Elite Eight with no other league boasting more than one. In fact, the Gators (Big Ten), Gamecocks (Big 12) and Wildcats (Pac-12) each beat a different conference to advance. UK will have an opportunity to knock off an ACC foe in one-seed North Carolina in the late game Sunday.
“SEC basketball, do we have some momentum? Yeah, I think so. I do. … We have three in the Elite Eight,” White said. “And who knows, I mean, I think the SEC’s going to be better next year, I really do. With the guys that are coming back, and again the young talent that will continue to grow within our league.”
But that’s a conversation for another time.
In terms of the events of Saturday morning, The City That Never Sleeps earned its nickname once again and may need to find some room for a new one, The Big Cheese.