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