Sally Jenk­ins on Florida and Chris Chiozza, a sleep­less hero.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - sally.jenk­ins@wash­ For more by Sally Jenk­ins, visit wash­ing­ton­­ins.

new york — The Shot of the NCAA Tour­na­ment was ev­ery­where Chris Chiozza looked, on big screens and small. Each time he shifted his tired eyes to his phone, there was an­other pic­ture or an­gle on so­cial me­dia: his head­long drib­ble, the dodge to­ward open court, and then the stag-legged, one-handed floater, fall­ing through the net at the buzzer.

“I en­joy it ev­ery time I watch it,” he said.

A game that had started late Fri­day night didn’t end un­til early Satur­day morn­ing, when Chiozza’s im­prob­a­ble shot gave Florida the Sweet 16 vic­tory over Wis­con­sin in over­time, 84-83. The ball fell through the net with 0.01 on the game clock, but on the reg­u­lar clock it was nearly 1 a.m. The Ga­tors were back at Madi­son Square Gar­den on Satur­day af­ter­noon, sleepy and sore and still try­ing to ab­sorb the events of the past 24 hours. Their chal­lenge was to look ahead to a meet­ing with South Carolina in the Elite Eight, when ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Chiozza, was still re­liv­ing those fran­tic clos­ing sec­onds.

“I heard from ev­ery­body I prob­a­bly ever met,” Chiozza said. He es­ti­mated he had al­most 300 text mes­sages. “Ev­ery time I look some­where, I see it, or some­one is send­ing it to me.”

By the time Florida’s bus made it back to the ho­tel, it was after 2 a.m. Coach Mike White took a look at his play­ers, with their heads bent over their de­vices, and said: “I want you in bed as soon as pos­si­ble. I don’t want to threaten you to take your cell­phones away, but we’ve got to turn them off. We all have a cou­ple hun­dred texts. Let’s re­turn them Sun­day night. Let’s go to sleep. And if you keep your phone on, you’re not go­ing to sleep.”

For Chiozza, it didn’t work. He lay in his bed and couldn’t shut his eyes, so he turned on a movie. “Neigh­bors.” He watched it for a while. Even­tu­ally he fell asleep — around the time the garbage trucks and street sweep­ers were pa­trolling the av­enues.

The trick for Florida was to move past it, to put away that se­quence. “We’ll go back and watch Chris’s shot a mil­lion times in the spring, but right now it’s about the Game­cocks,” White said. Trou­ble was, Chiozza’s replay was not just on the big screens and the high­light shows — it was still run­ning through their heads.

From Devin Robin­son’s per­spec­tive in the cor­ner: “He sprinted past like three de­fend­ers. And first I thought he was like throw­ing it up like for a lob, and I didn’t know how much time, and I looked up and I was like, oh snap. Like, this might go in. And it dropped.”

Se­nior Justin Leon was on the bench, watch­ing from the side­line. Chiozza went rac­ing past him, and then planted hard and floated up­ward. “From my po­si­tion it looked good,” Leon said. “And I was watch­ing the ball, and I was just ask­ing God, ‘Please don’t let my ca­reer be over yet.’ ”

One per­son who had not watched the replay re­peat­edly was White. The sec­ond-year head coach was too pre­oc­cu­pied with how to re­di­rect his team to­ward South Carolina, the sev­enth seed that has launched the shock run of the en­tire tour­na­ment, knock­ing off No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Bay­lor, the for­mer by seven points and the lat­ter by a full 20, 70-50 on Fri­day night.

“I’m al­ready wor­ried, I’m not gonna lie, about where our emo­tions are, and the level of our men­tal and phys­i­cal fa­tigue,” White said.

At break­fast, he asked his play­ers, “Hey, how do you feel?”

The re­sponses came: “Man, my legs are killing me.” Or: “I’m tired.” “And that’s what is go­ing on in our heads to­day,” White said.

The Ga­tors were count­ing on mas­sages and ice baths to help them re­cover in time for Sun­day’s 2:20 p.m. tip-off. “At this time of year, it’s all in the mind,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said.

But the Game­cocks are hardly just a men­tal chal­lenge for a weary Florida team, some ap­pari­tion. Rather, they are a hard­ened, tested out­fit with whom Florida split reg­u­lar sea­son meet­ings. And the Game­cocks are a far more dan­ger­ous propo­si­tion now than they were then: in the tour­na­ment they have found a surge of big of­fense, with all five starters av­er­ag­ing in dou­ble fig­ures, to go along with their no­to­ri­ously maul­ing de­fense, which ranked fourth in the na­tion in turnover ra­tio.

“We’re not phys­i­cal be­cause we foul,” Martin said. “We’re phys­i­cal be­cause we don’t get out of the way. Some teams get out of the way. We don’t move.”

The ques­tion is which of th­ese un­ex­pected ar­rivals in the Elite Eight will bet­ter han­dle the cir­cum­stances — from the 45minute Man­hat­tan traf­fic jams, to the per­for­mance anx­i­ety of play­ing in an arena with such a leg­endary aura, in which the roars can be al­ter­nately en­er­vat­ing and par­a­lyz­ing. All of which cre­ates its own kind of fa­tigue, on top of the nat­u­ral ex­haus­tion of Satur­day morn­ing’s past-mid­night fin­ish.

“If there’s one dis­ad­van­tage, it’s the fact that I’m not sure Chris has even slept yet,” White said. “I just think it’s for­tu­nate for both of us with the quick turn, that we’re very fa­mil­iar.”

That fa­mil­iar­ity should ease some of the ten­sion of a meet­ing in the Gar­den with a trip to the Fi­nal Four at stake.

“We’re play­ing a team we know,” Martin ob­served. “We’re not play­ing the mo­ment. We’re not play­ing a build­ing. We’re not play­ing the NCAA tour­na­ment. We’re play­ing the Florida Ga­tors. And our fo­cus should be we’re play­ing a team that we have played twice. Play­ing a team that we beat and that beat us, too. We got the first, they got the sec­ond, now we’re at a neu­tral site and let’s see what hap­pens.”


Florida’s Chris Chiozza lofts his game-win­ner against Wis­con­sin.

Sally Jenk­ins

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