USA Today Sports’ Nicole Auerbach recaps how Florida and South Carolina won in Friday’s NCAA tournament games.
USA TODAY Sports
NEW YORK — 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 — and the 2017 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.”
BOX SCORE: Gators 84, Badgers 83
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 on Sunday 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.
“Over the past probably six weeks or so we have talked about composure and poise and discipline as much as anything,” White said. “With John going out with the injury, knowing that we had to be a little tighter defensively, we had — we couldn’t afford to make a handful of mistakes. We had to try to limit those mistakes as much as possible.
“Offensively, we have been a group over the last couple years, again, probably up until recently … they would freak out at times; that they would press a little bit. I thought we did early in the game today or tonight. 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. They have just grown. Like KeVaughn getting to the rim in overtime, Chris Chiozza taking advantage and getting to the rim. Again, the play that Canyon made, not the foul there, to come up with the big block. And, of course, the buzzer-beater by Chris. Just we’re more experienced now and we’re utilizing that experience. We looked like an experienced team in overtime to overcome the change in energy level, the change in emotion.”
Florida’s win also gives the Southeastern Conference its third team in the Elite Eight, quite an accomplishment for a league synonymous with football. The conference got five teams into the NCAA tournament, yet three remain alive — and, because two will square off here Sunday, at least one is guaranteed to advance to the Final Four in Arizona.
Friday night’s game also marked the final collegiate game for a special group of prominent Wisconsin seniors — Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown and Zac Showalter — who will go down as one of the program’s all-time great classes with two Final Four runs and four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.
But it was time, apparently, to toss the baton. The madness of March would go on without the Badgers, and with the Gators.
“We did what we had to do to win,” Allen said. “We had a little bit of luck on our side.”
PHOTOS: SWEET 16 OF THE NCAA TOURNAMENT