Saturday, March 25, 2017

Chris Chiozza gives NCAA Tournament what it desperately needed

Chris Chiozza launches running three-pointer that launched Florida into East Regional final at buzzer over Wisconsin for highlight of NCAA Tournament to date. (Photo by USA Today Sports Images)

NEW YORK -- All we had heard through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was that the action was not good enough.

Not enough upsets. Not enough thrillers. Not even one shining moment.

The first of two regional semifinal nights saw your typical March theater, with Oregon surviving Michigan to begin the evening and then Gonzaga standing tall against West Virginia shortly thereafter, merely precursors to Xavier's epic comeback to send Arizona to the ranks of the eliminated as a Thursday night on the East Coast turned to Friday morning.

Three games into the Friday ledger, there was more of the same order that had dominated the early rounds: Convincing victories, outcomes well in hand before the horn. Alas, no March moment to join the timeless forever vault.

Enter Chris Chiozza.

The junior guard, who averaged just over seven points per game on the season; and who only scored eight on the night, became the latest entry into March lore, creasing the cords with a running three-point splash at the buzzer, vaulting his Florida Gators past Wisconsin and into a regional final for the second time in four years.

"I just knew I had four seconds, and I was trying to get down the court as fast as I could," Chiozza said, setting the scene as he recounted the final possession of a game whose box score will read Florida 84, Wisconsin 83. "If somebody was open, I was going to pass it, but they did a good job of bumping me and slowing me down."

"That was the only shot I had, so I had to take that one."

One shot. One shining moment.

The finality and sheer drama of this tournament atmosphere is what keeps everyone coming back for more, the line that everyone dreams of attempting to walk on the grand stage; and in this year's rendition of March Madness, one that had yet to even be drawn.

In an ironic twist of fate, Florida head coach Mike White had seen this movie before. Actually, he had lived it.

White was a junior at the University of Mississippi in the 1997-98 season, and his Rebels earned the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional. Their opening-round opponent? Horizon League upstart Valparaiso, who famously outlasted Ole Miss in Oklahoma City 19 years ago on the notorious "Pacer" play, which saw Bryce Drew hit the miraculous three that made the Crusaders a household name at the Rebels', and White's, expense.

Small world, huh? 

It gets even smaller.

Bryce Drew, now the head coach at Vanderbilt; who swept each of the three meetings with White's Gators this season, was in attendance at Madison Square Garden, watching with 20,000 other patrons as an instant classic played out in front of him. Drew had come to support his brother, Baylor head coach Scott, only to see the Bears come up short against South Carolina. What he, and everyone else for that matter, received was the latest unforgettable dose of the greatest spectacle in college basketball.

After the obligatory cool-down period, White entered his postgame press conference to a question from the Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley, one that brought everything full circle.

"Does the make up for Valpo?"

"Hell yeah," White declared, "with an emphasis on the hell."

"What a neat game to be part of," he added, "especially when you're on the winning end."

Win or lose, I think we can all agree with that last assessment; especially in March, the month in which dreams and moments and unlikely heroes, such as Chris Chiozza, take flight.

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