Thursday, April 26, 2018
Sports

NCAA Tournament: After Chiozza buzzer-beater, Gators prepare for South Carolina

NEW YORK — The texts started coming almost as soon as Chris Chiozza's winning 3-pointer went through the net.

"I heard from everybody that probably I ever met," Chiozza said.

He hit "read all," and, at last count, he had received more than 200 texts. Everywhere he turned — television, his e-mail, Instagram — he saw video of his greatest basketball moment again and again and again. Florida fans will see it forever.

It happened Friday night. Well, technically, early Saturday morning. The Gators were down by two in overtime of an epic Sweet 16 game against Wisconsin. Only four seconds remained.

Normally, the rule of thumb is one dribble for every one second. But Chiozza is not normal. The 6-foot junior guard is so ridiculously fast that he took an inbound pass underneath his own basket and took five dribbles. And he still had time to glide through the air and flick a floater from the top of the 3-point arc before the clock ran out.

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"I thought he was like throwing it up like for a lob," said teammate Devin Robinson, who had a perfect view from the corner. "I didn't know how much time (was left) and I looked up and it just kept floating, and I was like, 'Oh, snap!' Like this might go in. And it dropped. And I was like, 'Wow!"

The whole country was, like, wow.

"It was nuts," Robinson said.

Chiozza's buzzer-beater is the shot heard 'round Gator Nation. Florida has two national championship banners hanging in its arena, but this was probably the greatest singular moment in the program's history and one of the most memorable moments in the mad history of March Madness.

Even more important: Chiozza's floater sent Florida into today's East Region final against South Carolina with a trip to next weekend's Final Four at stake.

After the best sprint of his life, Chiozza had his second-most memorable mad dash when he zipped into the locker room and was surrounded by giddy teammates, who doused him with water, hugs and cheers.

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"I'm not even sure Chris has slept yet," Gators coach Mike White said.

"It was tough," Chiozza said. "It was exciting. I just tried my best to get off my feet and just lay in bed and try and fall asleep."

Therein lies the problem for the Gators. They have almost no time to put the single greatest moment in program history out of their minds in time to play South Carolina.

"Already worried," White said. "I'm not going to lie to you about where our emotions are and our level of mental and physical fatigue."

White knew it could be an issue almost immediately. He allowed his players to celebrate right after the game, but then addressed them on the bus as it pulled up to the team hotel after leaving the Garden in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Here's what he told them: "Guys, we're not going to watch film right now. We're not going to meet. I want you in bed as soon as possible. I don't want to threaten you to take your cellphones away, but we got to turn them off. We all have a couple of hundred texts. Let's return them on Sunday night. Let's go to sleep."

Sleep? Are you crazy? How do you go to sleep after what had just happened?

It was a game for the ages, with the Gators and the Badgers trading haymakers and leads. The Gators should have won in regulation. They should have lost in overtime.

The night was full of huge plays — from Wisconsin drilling an off-balance 3 to send the game to overtime to each of KeVaughn Allen's game-high 35 points to Canyon Barry's LeBron-like blocked shot in the final minute of OT to keep the Gators close and eventually set up Chiozza's one shining moment.

But now, you can't help but wonder if the celebration of the incredible victory won't leave the Gators with a serious hangover against a more-rested Gamecocks team that has Final Four dreams of its own.

White, however, has a secret weapon. It's a sign that his team sees each and every day when it leaves the locker room:

"You are not promised tomorrow."

White talked about his players staying in the moment. He talked about a business-like approach. He mentioned their toughness and the sign on the locker room door.

"It's a great opportunity against South Carolina," White said. "We'll go back and celebrate the wins and mourn the losses, and go back and watch Chris' shot a million times in the spring."

No doubt, it was a special moment for White, Chiozza and the Gators.

But White, Chiozza and the Gators hope it's not the last special moment of this magical season. Whether it is or not will depend on if the Gators can forget about a moment that was, well, unforgettable.

 
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