NEW YORK –A favorite finally won something in the star-crossed NCAA East Regional, but somehow Florida’s last-split-fraction-of-a-second victory over Wisconsin in overtime, 84-83, at Madison Square Garden didn’t feel that way. It felt like everything else in this bracket — like a tremendous upset.
In a tournament that lacked an overtime or a buzzer-beater, this Sweet 16 clash delivered both – in fact, it offered a pair of buzzer-beaters one to send the game into overtime from Wisconsin, the other to win it for Florida.
The Gators trailed with four seconds remaining after Nigel Hayes of Wisconsin made what seemed to be the game-deciding spin to the basket and was fouled, sinking two free throws to put the Badgers up, 83-81. But the Gators are an absurdly quick team, and no one is quicker than guard Chris Chiozza, who ate up the length of the court in just a few headlong dribbles, streaking past both benches, then cut sharply past Hayes to the top of the key and let fly a spinning one-hander that fell through the net with 0.01 left on the clock and the buzzer sounded to send the Gators to the Elite Eight.
“It was the only shot I had,” Chiozza said. “So I had to take that one. … God just blessed me with incredible speed and I just knew I could use that and have time left to either get somebody else a shot or take the shot myself.”
It was merely the last sharp intake of breath in a game that included double digit comebacks by both teams and scarcely believable lead swings. “A gut wrenching game,” Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard called it. Florida trailed by 11 in the first half. Wisconsin trailed by 11 in the second, largely thanks to the silky three pointers of Gators sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, who had 35 points. Then came one last huge surge from the Badgers, clawing from eight points down with 1:44 to go to as Florida appeared to collapse.
Last week, the Badgers recovered from seven down in similar circumstances to upset top-seeded and defending champion Villanova. “We came back and won that one so we were definitely confident in that same regard,” said the Badgers’ Ethan Happ.
The Badgers sent the game into overtime when Zak Showalter hit an off balance, floating three-pointer to tie the game with 2.5 seconds left, and seemed poised for a repeat scenario. “They had all the momentum in the world,” Florida Coach Mike White said. “We couldn’t hold on. Made a huge shot.”
Wisconsin was the eighth seed, but it was the older team and more experienced hand in the regional, making its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and its sixth in the past seven years. Seniors Hayes and Bronson Koenig were playing in the 14th NCAA tournament games of their careers, including a couple of Final Four appearances as freshmen and sophomores.
But they couldn’t close the door on the Gators despite briefly taking a five-point lead in the overtime. “We had spurts where we did what needed to do and spurts where we gave it away. … We just ran out of time tonight,” Hayes said.
It was the Gators who seemed out of time after Hayes’ free throws gave the Badgers the 83-81 lead. The Badgers had no time outs and the length of the court to go. Once the ball was inbounded to Chiozza, he had to try to shake Hayes, who tried to bump and pin him along the sideline. But Chiozza ate up huge swatches of the court in just a few short dribbles – “With four seconds Chris knows he has anywhere from four to six dribbles, not three or four like most guys,” White said. “And boy he utilized them.” Chiozza got slightly ahead of Hayes, and then zagged sharply away towards the open court. He left his feet and the clock ticked to zero.
“I needed to do a better job of making him change directions,” Hayes said afterwards. “He was able to outrun me. I needed to make him take one extra crossover dribble. He made a good shot. It’s what sometimes happens in this tournament.”
The fourth-seeded Gators now meet seventh-seeded South Carolina on Sunday in an all-Southeastern Conference regional final. The Gamecocks defeated No.3-seed Baylor, 70-50, in an earlier regional semifinal to make their first Elite Eight in school history. The two teams split their regular season conference meetings.