NEW YORK – “My goodness.”
As Florida head coach Mike White took the dais in the wee hours of Saturday morning those seemed to be the only two words that could perfectly describe what he – and a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden – had just seen.
“I’m so proud of our guys, I can’t even put it into words the way that I would like to,” White said. “I wish I had more thought, more time to put more thought into it.”
Minutes after blowing two double-digit leads in the second half. Moments after getting sucker-punched by Zak Showalter. Seconds – literally – after Nigel Hayes seemingly landed the knockout blow for Wisconsin with two pure free throws, Chris Chiozza and Florida left the basketball world speechless with a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Zak Showalter hit a tough shot at the end of regulation to send it into overtime,” Chiozza said. “Any time that happens, it takes a little, it takes the life out of you a little bit. But we came into the huddle, and we knew that if we played defense the way we played the second half, that we had a great chance of coming out with the win.
“We did what we had to do to win. We got a little bit of luck on our side.”
The amazing thing was that it wasn’t just the perfect shot the Gators needed. Chiozza’s miracle was also the perfect shot the Southeastern Conference needed. It was the perfect shot this NCAA tournament – woefully devoid of any buzzer-beaters and plagued by abysmal final possessions – needed.
It was the perfect shot that ended the careers of four remarkable Wisconsin Badgers, sending Hayes, Showalter, Vitto Brown and Bronson Koenig back to Madison two days earlier than they would have liked – and without a third Elite Eight appearance in four years.
“I feel terrible shaking [Wisconsin head coach] Greg [Gard’s] hand and it’s heart-breaking,” White said. “He’s done an amazing job there and that senior class has been pretty special.”
Nothing about the game until that point suggested Chiozza, a generously listed 6-foot junior guard for the Gators, would – or even should – be the perfect player to take the shot. The Memphis, Tennessee native hadn’t started a game all season for the Gators and is far from a marksman from beyond the arc.
In fact, Chiozza had only hit 28 3-pointers all season.
For 44 minutes and 56 seconds, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind – Gator, Badger, coach, spectator – about who would likely line up for a game-winning shot for Florida. Sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen had carried the Gators to this point, scoring a career-high 35 points. No other Gator – Chiozza included – finished in double figures.
“Over the past probably six weeks or so we have talked about composure and poise and discipline as much as anything,” White said. “Late in this one we just, we made plays that we weren’t making earlier in the season offensively, especially, and definitely not last year with these same guys.”
Experience or not, it’s hard to believe that anyone can process the kind of information that Chiozza needed prior to the chaotic final seconds.
Four ticks of the clock – barely enough time to say buzzer-beater, let alone hit one for most players – was perfect, plenty of time, Chiozza thought.
“I just knew I had four seconds and I was trying to get down the court as fast as I could and if somebody was open I was going to pass it,” Chiozza said. “I was really trying to get to the rim, 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.”
His coach knew it, too.
Ironically, it was the perfect situation for the Gators. No timeouts, no chance to second-guess what would happen – or what needed to happen.
“With our speed and quickness, we play a bunch of four-minute games in practices,” White said. “Our guys have played hundreds of them all season. We’re in that position a bunch, to try to get late clock offensive situations. Chris knows he has anywhere from four to six dribbles, not three or four like most guys. And, boy, he utilized them and those.”
Allen, whose historic night of his own would become an asterisk as quickly as the ball swished through the net, watched in suspense.
“When I saw Chris go down the court, when he had a shot at it, I didn’t know whether it was a three or a two,” Allen said of the frantic final moments. “Then, at the end, when the referee … said it was a three, I was very happy for him.”
Next up for the Gators is a date Sunday afternoon with the South Carolina Gamecocks, an SEC rubber match with a spot in the Final Four on the line, but for now Chris Chiozza can look back on a night he will remember forever.
The night he saved the Gators season. The night he ensured the SEC would be Phoenix-bound. The night he saved this NCAA tournament. The night he cemented his celebrity status in Gainesville forever.
The night his eight points weren’t just elite, they were perfect.
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