NEW YORK — Sitting at his locker, having just scrolled through the endless stream of text messages flooding into his phone, Chris Chiozza tried to explain what will go down as one of the greatest shots in Florida basketball history.
And one of the great highlights in NCAA Tournament history, for that matter.
After Wisconsin took a 2-point lead with 4 seconds to go in overtime Friday night, having already hit a dramatic 3-pointer to force the extra session, the Gators inbounded the ball to Chiozza with their season on the line. He had every intention of getting to the basket for a potential game-tying score, but when he glanced at the clock as he crossed midcourt he realized that wouldn’t be possible.
So he let it fly. Off balance, lunging and with a prayer.
It had barely finished swishing through the net before the Florida bench erupted onto the court, mobbing Chiozza and soaking in a momentous 84-83 overtime win over the Badgers at Madison Square Garden.
The Gators (27-8) now move on to an Elite Eight showdown with SEC foe South Carolina at 2:20 p.m. Sunday, with more momentum than they could have ever imagined.
“I still can’t believe it went in,” Chiozza said afterwards. “I just, I tried to get down to the other end of the court as fast as I could, and I looked up and I saw I had 1 second right when I crossed halfcourt. So I knew I had another dribble and I could get a quick shot off, and it went in and I ran down the court and followed the ball and I watched it go through the net and unbelievable to see it go in like that.”
Said teammate Kevarrius Hayes: “You dream of something like this, making it this far and just like the way it happened is something out of a movie.”
It wasn’t just the best game of the 2017 NCAA Tournament so far, it’s one that will be replayed in highlights montages for years and decades. It’s one that nobody who saw it will ever forget where they were or the image of that shot.
Just a little while earlier a lunging last-second 3-pointer from Wisconsin’s Zac Showalter looked like it might lead to the end of No. 4-seeded Florida’s season.
The No. 8 Badgers (27-10) had scored the final 8 points of regulation in a stunning comeback over the final 1 minute, 30 seconds. A 3-pointer from Bronson Koenig, a layup by Ethan Happ and that off-balance Showalter 3 with 2.5 seconds on the clock erased what had been a Florida lead for nearly the entire second half.
Wisconsin then took a 78-73 lead in overtime as it looked like the Gators had let this one slip away.
But Canyon Barry followed with a layup for Florida’s first field goal of the extra session, Showalter countered with a pair of free throws and KeVaughn Allen scored on a layup to make it an 80-77 game with 47 seconds to play.
Happ then went 1-of-2 on at the foul line, Barry drained two free throws at the other end and came through bigger still with a clutch block on a Khalil Iverson layup attempt. Chiozza tied it at 81-81 on a layup before Nigel Hayes got to the line with 4 seconds left to put the Badgers back ahead once more.
But not for long.
Chiozza wanted to drive it all the way to the basket, but Wisconsin diverted his path leaving too little time as he glanced at the clock.
“I thought he’d get in the paint, but then I think it was Hayes if I’m not mistaken, kind of made him veer a little bit,” Gators coach Mike White said. “So he pulled up a little early, I guess it happened so quick you don’t even think. I may have thought, ‘Boy, that’s a little bit early.’ I can’t remember. The thing went in.”
A reporter questioned Chiozza how he could get from halfcourt to the 3-point line and get a shot off in 1 second?
“I don’t know, I’m pretty fast,” he countered.
Chiozza, Florida’s backup junior point guard, came into the night as a 34.9-percent 3-point shooter, but he’s 4-for-6 so far in the NCAA Tournament now. He finished with only 8 points Friday night, but 5 came in overtime.
Allen, meanwhile, poured in a career-high 35 points on 11-of-24 shooting and was set to be the hero of the evening before the wild ending.
He might have been the coldest shooter in the NCAA Tournament, and not in an ice-in-the-veins kind of way. For a third straight game he simply hadn’t been able to find his shot while struggling through most of the first half.
Until he broke out of his funk with the best stretch of his collegiate career.
Allen scored 13 of Florida’s final 18 points in a momentum-seizing stretch to close the first half. He didn’t miss during a stretch of eight shots at one point and was a terrific storyline in his own right.
Because it’s hard to understate how much Allen, the Gators’ leading scorer this season, had been struggling before he suddenly couldn’t miss.
He had shot a miserable 4-of-28 from the field this tournament before a fastbreak dunk late in the first half, and he’d miss his next two 3-pointers to fall to 1-of-17 from long-range for the tournament.
But he was not deterred. Soon a layup fell in for him and later Allen drained a 3 to cut the deficit to 30-28 and he was dialed in from there.
“Nothing changes as far as me being aggressive and just continuing the shooting,” Allen said afterward. “And just my teammates just believing in me, just to keep shooting whether I miss or hit.”
It was a terrific first leading role in what turned out to be a suspenseful, twist-filled, three-act play.
And an unforgettable one at that.
“We’re so fortunate that we came out on the winning end of that one. My goodness,” said White, who as a player at Ole Miss was on the losing end of a buzzer-beating game-winner by Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew. “It does negate at a little bit the Valpo shot, just to come out on the winning end of this one. I’m so happy for Chris. This is something for the rest of his life that he’ll be remembered by. He made an unbelievable play.”
Player of the game: KeVaughn Allen
Chiozza delivered the biggest shot, but nobody played better than Allen.
He shot 11-of-24 from the field, 4-of-12 from 3 and 9-of-10 from the line while scoring those career-best 35 points.
It was Allen’s awakening, of course.
The Gators closed the first half on a 12-3 run with Allen scoring the last 9 of those points.
While the game was far from over, that stretch and Allen’s performance changed the dynamic of the game.
What’s next for Gators
Florida will play SEC foe South Carolina in the Elite Eight on Sunday at 2:20 p.m. inside Madison Square Garden.
It will be the third meeting this season between the Gators and Gamecocks (25-10), who advanced with a dominant 70-50 win over Baylor.
South Carolina earned a 57-53 win at home in the first meeting and Florida won the rematch, 81-66, in Gainesville.
Florida is in the Elite Eight for the first time since its last Final Four run in 2014.
Florida-Wisconsin box score