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Do you believe in miracles?

If you weren’t one to believe in miracles prior to the clock striking zero at the end of overtime sometime after midnight Saturday morning at Madison Square Garden, then you believe now, don’t you?

Actually, there were two other miracles beside the 3-point floater that Chris Chiozza hit at the buzzer to give the Florida Gators (27-8) an 84-81 win over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 game of the NCAA East Regional.

The first one came with 34 seconds left when the Gators were trailing the Badgers 81-79 after a pair of free throws by Canyon Barry had drawn UF close. Wisconsin elected to go over the top, launching a three-quarter length pass to Khalil Iverson who got behind the UF defense. Iverson made the catch and appeared to have an easy layup that would have made it a 4-point game, but Barry arrived, seemingly out of nowhere to get a clean block that Chiozza rebounded.  Chiozza motored up the court, found a crease at the top of the key and broke through for an uncontested layup that tied the game at 81-81 with 24.1 seconds to go.

“We had a great hustle play by Canyon when they had a chance to seal the game with about 20-30 seconds left and he was able to chase the guy down and block it and we came down and tied it up,” Chiozza said.

Wisconsin, which had sent the game into overtime when Zak Showalter came up with a miracle 3-pointer that tied the game at 72-72 with 2.1 seconds to go, worked the clock down on its ensuing possession and got the ball into Nigel Hayes on the right wing. Guarded by Justin Leon, Hayes drew a foul on the way to the basket and then dropped in two pressure free throws with 4 seconds remaining to give the Badgers an 83-81 lead.

Then came miracle number two. On the in bounds play, Wisconsin tried to guard Chiozza, the fastest player on the floor with Hayes, a 6-8, 250-pounder. Total mismatch and either it was a busted assignment or a complete brain fart by Wisconsin coach Greg Gard. It was no secret that Chiozza has sprinter’s speed. Gard had D’Mitrik Trice in the game, the Badgers’ fastest player. He was stationed well past the top of the key and hedging toward Kevaughn Allen. With Hayes, dead tired and no match for his speed, Chiozza not only got open easily to catch the inbounds pass but he had a running start that allowed him to easily split a double team just before midcourt. Once past halfcourt, Chiozza had a clear path to the 3-point line. Two feet before the line, Chiozza left his feet and launched a floater that touched only net to advance the Gators to a Sunday afternoon Elite Eight game with their SEC brethren from South Carolina, who continued their shocking run in the tournament by blowing the doors off 3-seed Baylor, 70-50, earlier in the evening.

“With four seconds Chris knows he has anywhere from four to six dribbles, not three or four like most guys,” Florida coach Mike White said. “… He made an unbelievable play.”

The three miracles in the final 34 seconds of overtime overshadowed that the Gators blew a 12-point lead in the final 5:24 of regulation. The Gators had a 68-56 lead at that point and Wisconsin was like a punch drunk boxer leaning against the ropes and hoping wobbly legs would somehow withstand the onslaught.

But the Gators were in a rather benevolent mood. Wisconsin came back to get the game into overtime and give the Badgers credit for hanging tough, but their comeback couldn’t have happened if the Gators had simply taken care of the basketball.

After Wisconsin cut the lead to 10 on a Showalter layup, then a UF turnover and and a second chance layup when the Gators failed to corral a rebound made it 8. Allen blew a layup and when Showalter grabbed the rebound for Wisconsin he was fouled. At the other end he hit both foul shots to make it a 6-point game. Down at the other end, Kevarrius Hayes hit 1-2 from the foul line for a 69-62 UF lead and after the Gators got a stop, Hill went to the foul line and also went 1-2.

An 8-point lead with 2:10 left seemed safe but it wasn’t. After Bronson Koenig missed a 3-ball, nobody put a body on Showalter, who sneaked in for a rebound and layup with 1:54 to go. Now it was a 6-point game. 

Hill delivered a pair of free throws to stretch the lead to 8, 72-64, with 1:44 left but down at the other end, Hill got caught in a screen that freed Koenig in the corner where he nailed a 3-ball. It was 72-67 with 1:33 to go.

Over the next 1:33, the Gators missed a layup and turned the ball over twice. Ethan Happ hit a layup to cut the lead to 72-69 with 44 seconds left and Showalter delivered a floating 3-pointer with 3 seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime.

As deflating as the Wisconsin comeback was, the Gators fell behind quickly by 5 in overtime. It was 78-73 with 1:40 to go and 80-75 with 1:09 left.

The Gators chipped away with a layup by Allen with 49 seconds left and after Happy went 1-2 from the foul line, Barry was fouled on his way to the basket. His two free throws made it an 81-79 with 34 seconds left setting the stage for the miracles at the end.

Florida’s overtime comeback was the second of the game for the Gators. UF fell behind 24-13 in the first 12 minutes of the game but a Keith Stone 3-pointer from the left corner got UF started on the comeback trail. That shot seemed to settle the Gators down and it showed on the defensive end. Florida turned the Badgers over 5 times in the last seven minutes and that coincided with Allen getting hot. After struggling to get anything going offensively in the first 12 minutes, Allen dominated the final 4:14, scoring 14 points to lead Florida to an improbable 34-32 lead at the half.

Florida let Wisconsin back in it in the first three minutes of the second half, but Allen got hot again to help spurt the Gators to a 51-41 lead with 14:51 to go. Wisconsin came back from that deficit to take a 53-52 lead on a 3-point play by Hayes with 10:21 to go but Allen put UF back in front with a 3-pointer and that led to Florida stretching the lead to 68-56 with 5:24 to go.

GAME NOTES: Allen was the only Gator in double figures with 35 points including 9-10 from the foul line … Chiozza finished the game with 8 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal … Florida finished the game 28-62 (45.2%) from the field and 8-22 (36.4%) from the 3-point line ... Florida has made it to the Elite Eight game five times in the last seven years … Mike White is now 3-0 in NCAA Tournament play in his coaching career. The Gators are now 45-17 all-time in NCAA play. 


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