NEW YORK — Florida head coach Mike White was never more happy to see one of his players disobey his orders.
Down two late in overtime, Gators swingman Canyon Barry was chasing down Wisconsin forward Khalil Iverson, on his way to a breakaway layup which probably would have iced the game for the Badgers and a spot in the Elite Eight. As White yelled to Barry from the far sideline to foul Iverson and prevent an uncontested layup, Barry, one of Florida’s super subs, rose to meet Iverson at the rim.
Clean block. No foul. Ten seconds later, Florida tied it. Twenty four seconds after that, the Gators, in the most unbelievable fashion, were off to their first Elite Eight under White.
Unless you’re not glued social media, you already know that the biggest story of Florida’s 84-83 win over Wisconsin in the second Sweet 16 matchup in the East Region at Madison Square Garden was Chris Chiozza’s running three-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer to lift Florida to its first Elite Eight since its Final Four appearance in 2014. More on that shot – and the heroic shot that made overtime a reality – a little later. It was Barry’s timely block just a few seconds prior that just kept the Gators even in the game and thinking about victory.
A block that should have been a foul, if White had his way.
“I’m not going to lie – I was screaming, ‘Foul,'” said White, the second-year head coach of the Gators. “We got beat long. I remember when [Iverson] is at the top of the key with a head of steam, I’m screaming, ‘Foul, foul, foul.’ And then I’m thinking that I hope it’s not a flagrant, I hope we don’t wrap him up. And then Canyon goes up and I’m thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ and then I said, ‘What an unbelievable play.'”
Barry’s block led to a Chiozza layup that tied the game at 81 with 24 seconds left. One possession later, after Nigel Hayes knocked down two free throws with four seconds left to give Wisconsin an 83-81 lead, Barry and Chiozza once again hooked up: Barry inbounded the ball to Chiozza in the backcourt, 75 feet away from the basket; Chiozza sped over 50 feet into the frontcourt and, after that sprint, had a second to release a game-winning attempt.
One second later, swish.
“God just blessed me with incredible speed, 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,” said Chiozza, who scored eight of Florida’s 20 bench points in the game.
Barry scored seven of those 20 bench points for the Gators, all of them coming in the second half. He also had that game-saving block, of course, in that second session.
“You know, you got to keep the faith,” said Barry, who transferred into the program as a graduate student after his time at the College of Charleston. “The game’s not over until the final buzzer sounds, and we kept playing hard the entire game and anything can happen in March, which we clearly saw tonight.”
Almost everything that could happen in the NCAA Tournament – memorable moments, buzzer-beating shots, unfettered joy and abject misery – occurred in these 45 minutes of playing time tonight (and early morning). The game only went into overtime after Wisconsin came back from an eight-point deficit late in the contest, tying it with a running Zak Showalter three-pointer from the top of the key with 2.1 seconds in regulation, a la Chiozza’s game-winning shot. The largely pro-Wiconsin crowd at Madison Square Garden then saw the Badgers take a lead as big as five in the extra session, and it looked as if Wisconsin was headed towards another great escape after coming back from a seven-point deficit late in its win over top-seeded Villanova last Saturday in Buffalo.
“You’re in a little bit of a shock, obviously,” said Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard, who finished his first full season as Badgers head coach. “You talk about things that could have been better, to put it in better position, put us in better position down the stretch, not have it get to overtime. We made a heck of a comeback to get to overtime.”
Even with that shock still coursing through the Badgers locker room, it was also time to recognize the accomplishments of the Badgers seniors like Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who led Wisconsin to four Sweet 16 appearances, two Final Fours and a national championship game during their time in Madison.
“So you touch on a few of those things [late in the ball game], but you address more big picture things in terms of what these guys, specifically the four seniors, the impact they have had on the program and show your appreciation for them,” Gard said.
Florida now heads to the Elite Eight for a rubber match with the seventh-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks, who pulled off another seed upset earlier in the night with a 70-50 victory over Baylor. Adding Kentucky’s win over UCLA in Memphis in the South Region, three of the eight schools making up the Elite Eight are from the Southeastern Conference, which has been maligned in the past few years of being, outside of the Wildcats, not up to snuff when it comes to matching up with other power conferences on the hardwood.
When asked if the SEC is no longer just a football conference, White said: “I’ll start by saying this: I don’t know if [former Florida AD Jeremy Foley] left or not, I know he was going to hydrate and he told me, but as a Florida Gator, sitting here as a proud Gator, it is a football conference. And it’s a basketball conference, and it’s a gymnastics conference, and a softball conference, and no one is more aware of that than the Florida Gators. There’s excellence, throughout the conference in every sport. Men’s and women’s.”
White, who was on the opposite end of a memorable buzzer beater as Ole Miss’s point guard in 1998 when they lost to Valparaiso and Bryce Drew’s three at the buzzer, felt that this game exorcised some personal NCAA Tournament demons.
“Hell yeah,” White said when asked if this game makes up for that loss 19 years ago. “Yeah. With an emphasis on the hell. Yeah. Absolutely.”
We’re sure his team would agree…even if they don’t listen to his orders sometimes.