University of Florida

Chiozza’s prayer as time expires lifts Gators by Wisconsin in OT and into Great Eight

Florida guard Chris Chiozza (11) puts up a last second 3-point shot to score the game-winning points against Wisconsin in overtime of an East Regional semifinal game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Sat., March 25, 2017, in New York. Florida won 84-83.
Florida guard Chris Chiozza (11) puts up a last second 3-point shot to score the game-winning points against Wisconsin in overtime of an East Regional semifinal game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Sat., March 25, 2017, in New York. Florida won 84-83. AP

Outside of Kentucky, who says basketball in the SEC is nothing more than an afterthought, a way to pass the winter months before spring football practice?

Try telling that to Florida and South Carolina.

Are you listening Steve Spurrier?

A trip to the Final Four will be on the line Sunday when the Gators and Gamecocks — the Ol’ Ball Coach’s old football schools — hook up on the hardwood at Madison Square Garden.

Chris Chiozza’s floating 3-pointer as time expired gave the Gators a thrilling 84-83 victory in overtime.

“I just knew I had four seconds and I was trying to get down the court as fast as I could,” Chiozza said. “I was really trying to get to the rim. (But) that was the only shot that I had.”

Wisconsin took an 83-81 lead on a pair of Nigel Hayes free throws with four seconds remaining, and Florida was out of timeouts. But Chiozza took the inbound pass, dribbled down the court, and launched a 3-pointer for the game-winner.

Chiozza’s game-winner was even more dramatic than Zac Showalter’s game-tying 3-pointer for Wisconsin with two seconds left in regulation. That big bucket capped a late Wisconsin comeback that saw a relatively comfortable late lead for Florida go down the drain.

And then Wisconsin took over in overtime, building an 80-75 lead on a Showalter free throw with a minute to go.

“We got down five,” said Florida coach Mike White. “They had all the momentum in the world.”

But the Gators battled back, and Chiozza tied it with a layup with 24 seconds left. After Hayes sank a pair of three throws to give Wisconsin an 83-81 lead with only four seconds left, Florida had no way of stopping the clock.

So Chiozza took the inbounds pass and began dribbling as quickly as he could to get down the court. Just before the 3-point arc, he went airborne and let go a floating shot.

It went through, and the Gators celebrated.

Kentucky also won on Friday, defeating UCLA to leave the SEC with three teams — most of any conference — in the final field of eight.

“I know there’s been some negativity toward the SEC potentially underachieving these last couple of years,” White said. “But within our conference, we know the potential.”

Until Chiozza hit the winning shot, KeVaughn Allen was almost a one-man show for the Gators by scoring 35 points. No other Gator scored in double digits.

After trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half and allowing Wisconsin to wipe out their 10-point lead in the second, the Gators — behind Allen’s shooting — seemingly put the game away by going on a 16-7 run.

But Wisconsin rallied and sent the game into overtime on Showalter’s 3-pointer with two seconds left in regulation.

“That was deflating,” White said.

For Florida, a trip to the Final Four would be their first since 2014 and leaves them in contention for their first national title since 2007. The Gamecocks are in unknown territory, having never made it this far in the tournament.

Why, until this year, the Gamecocks hadn’t even won a tournament game since 1973, losing five straight first-round games since. Now Florida and Carolina are on three-game tournament rolls, knocking down higher-ranked opponents in the process.

Florida and South Carolina reached the Sweet 16 by taking down a pair of ACC powers in Virginia and Duke. They proved those wins were no flukes Friday.

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