For the last year seniors Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter replayed the final minutes of their Sweet 16 loss over in their heads. The loss to Notre Dame got referenced constantly for the abundance of turnovers and the self-inflicted wounds. The only consolation was the group had one more opportunity to make a run.
This time, those four walk away from their collegiate careers in a season that was once again unfulfilled.
Four seconds away from the program’s third Elite Eight appearance in four seasons, Florida's Chris Chiozza delivered the dagger with his running 3-pointer with no time left, lifting fourth-seeded Florida to an 84-83 overtime victory over eighth-seed Wisconsin Friday in the East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Sophomore guard Kevaughn Allen broke out of his shooting slump in a big way, as the first-team All-SEC star dropped 35 points – the most in a N.C.A.A. tournament game in school history – on a night where the Gators (27-8) shot 45.2 percent and put no other players in double figures.
It was still good enough to set up an all-SEC final between Florida and seventh-seed South Carolina Sunday for a berth in the Final Four in Glendale, AZ., because the Badgers – again – were sloppy with the ball in their season’s final game and couldn’t convert from the line.
Wisconsin (27-10) shot over 50 percent for the second straight game but committed 16 turnovers that led to 20 Florida points and finished 20-for-30 at the line. Those became magnified on Wisconsin’s final possession of the season.
Senior Nigel Hayes had just hit a pair of free throws with four seconds left to put Wisconsin up 83-81. Head coach Greg Gard chose not to call timeout to force the Gators – who were out of timeouts – to draw something up on the fly.
It backfired when Chiozza caught the ball in stride (UW didn’t guard the inbounder) underneath Wisconsin’s rim and was a step ahead of Hayes. Freshman D'Mitrik Trice – likely in the game because Koenig was dealing with cramping issues suffered at the end of regulation – ended up cutting off Hayes, giving Chiozza more room and allowed the Florida junior a clear lane.
“God just pleased me with incredible speed,” Chiozza said, “so I just knew that I could use that and get to the other end of the court and have time left to either get somebody else a shot or take the shot myself.”
He released the ball with plenty of time on the clock, his foot behind the line and no UW player close enough to get a hand in his face. Gut punch.
“I need to do a better job of making him change directions,” Hayes said. “He's extremely quick with the ball and he was able to put it in one hand and kind of outrun me. I need to do a better job of taking a better angle to at least make him take one extra crossover dribble. But he made a good shot. Sometimes that's what happens in this tournament.”
Since the field expanded in 1985, only Arizona and Wisconsin have lost four one-point N.C.A.A. tournament games (the second-seed Wildcats lost 73-72 to 11th-seed Xavier Thursday). Two have come in the last four years while the last four seasons have seen the Badgers eliminated by a combined 12 points.
In his 150th straight game, Hayes led five players in double figures with 22 points – moving him into third on UW’s all-time scoring list – but he finished 7-for-14 from the free throw line. The Badgers also got 21 points from Ethan Happ, 14 from Showalter, 13 from Koenig and 10 from Brown.
Wisconsin’s four seniors went 8-1 in overtime the last four seasons, including winning seven of those games on the road and one at Madison Square Garden two months ago. It’s this one that will likely sting forever, considering the resiliency they played with down the stretch for the second game in a row.
Refusing to give in despite being 10 down with under five minutes to play, Showalter’s 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left forced overtime and gave Wisconsin all the momentum after closing on a 16-4 run. That buzzer beater was on a broken play that didn’t even have Koenig on the floor. Guarded by Chiozza no less, Showalter stuck his head down, plowed forward and released the awkward-looking runner that saved the Badgers for the time being.
When Florida called timeout he looked in the direction of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and did Rodgers’ famous discount double-check maneuver around his waist. When Chiozza got his revenge, Showalter walked off the court, with Happ’s arm around his shoulder, and began to cry.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen; we were all confident that we would get the win,” Showalter said. “Obviously things didn’t go our way the whole game, but we battled back. When I saw that shot go through the net, it just crushed me.”
The first overtime game in this year’s tournament had plenty of drama. The Badgers built a lead as big as five points with 1:08 to go and led by four with 42 seconds left, but kept the door open by going 9-for-14 from the line.
After his two free throws cut the lead to two, senior Canyon Barry’s hustle play blocked a hesitating sophomore Khalil Iverson on an open layup with 34 seconds left. Chiozza tied the score at 82 on the next possession to set up the frantic final possession for each team.
“That’s basketball really,” Trice said. “There are a lot of ups and downs. Unfortunately, we came up on the short end of the stick on this one.”
Wisconsin’s first 10 offensive possessions of the game were things of beauty. The Badgers scored 16 points from five different scorers, went 6-for-8 with five assists and hit all three 3-pointers.
The last 15 possessions were a different story, as the Badgers managed only two field goals and seven turnovers. After Hayes sat the final 4:25 after drawing his second foul, Wisconsin made only one field goal to three turnovers in those seven possessions after Florida turned up the press.
It’s also didn’t help that Happ and Brown fouled Allen shooting a 3-pointer with either one second left on the shot or the game clock. An 87.8 percent free throw shooter, those six free throws gave Florida a halftime lead and Allen – who entered halftime 7-for-33 and 2-18 from 3-point range in the tournament – some confidence with 15 points.
Wisconsin executed a 12-1 run to take a 53-52 lead with 10:21 remaining, but the joy was short lived with Allen hitting a 3-pointer and turnovers on three consecutive UW possessions helped spark a 9-0 run to re-dig the Badgers’ hole. The lead ballooned to as many as 12, but Wisconsin went back to the well to set up the thrilling-heartbreaking finish.
“I think this game will go down in history,” Showalter said.
For a class that started their careers going to two Final Fours and a national championship game and ending it being one of the final 16 teams remaining for the second year in a row, it’s a tremendous history lesson for a day down the road.
But for a senior class that missed on a pair of Big Ten titles and one more national championship run, it’s a lesson that they hope will serve as a reminder of how cruel March can be.
“We just hope that we were able to leave a good impression on the freshman and the people coming in behind us,” Brown said. “We hope they can continue to carry on the tradition.”