Buzzer beaters! Florida and Wisconsin trade last-second shots in wild Sweet 16 thriller

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The NCAA tournament had made it through almost three full rounds and 56 total games without a buzzer beater. Then, in a span of five minutes in the Florida-Wisconsin game, there were two. The madness had finally begun.

In the Wisconsin-Florida Sweet 16 game, Florida’s Chris Chiozza drilled a full-speed, stop-on-a-dime 3-pointer as time expired in overtime to give his Gators a stunning 84-83 win. In case that wasn’t dramatic enough, the shot fell at just about 1 a.m. ET in the most famous sporting arena in the world, Madison Square Garden. That’s swagger on a hundred thousand million.

It was a topsy-turvy game. Florida trailed by double digits in the first half and led by double digits in the second before a furious Wisconsin comeback. The game was tied with four seconds left in overtime when Wisconsin’s big man Nigel Hayes, a 59 percent free-throw shooter, coolly sunk two from the stripe to put the Badgers up. Florida inbounded with 4.0 seconds left, Chiozza caught the ball in full sprint and Usain Bolt’d down the court, nobody on Wisconsin picked him up and he was able to hit that running, off-balance “3” three that looked pure from the instant it left his fingertips. It was Chiozza’s only 3-point bucket of the game.

But how did we get there? Why did Chiozza and UF need a “3” to win a game they led by eight points with 1:44 left in regulation? Before the glory, Mike White’s Gators had a disastrous final 100 seconds that involved a missed layup, two turnovers and a slew of blown defensive rebounds. Florida didn’t score in that final 1:44, while Wisconsin chipped away and then, down three, saw Zak Showalter hit the same type of off-balance running “3,” this time with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. (It wasn’t literally a buzzer beater. It was essentially a buzzer beater. You take what you can get in this tournament.)

Midway through overtime it looked like the story of the game would be that Florida collapse. Wisconsin was dominating the glass, grabbing offensive rebounds and snatching defensive ones with just as much ease. The Gators were gassed too. An easy, running jump shot air balled. Another 3-pointer was heaved with so much overcompensation that it cleared the back of the rim. And then there were the fouls, the ones that put guys like Hayes to the line and gave Wisconsin a lead and, seemingly, full control. They were lazy fouls, the kind where the sneakers of an exhausted player look like they’re stuck in gum. And while his opponent blows past him on the top of the key, his only move is to throw his body in front — a textbook blocking foul. Florida truly looked done with two minutes left in overtime when it had a dagger progression: Down four points, KeVaughn Allen missed a “3,” Kevarrius Hayes got the offensive rebound, passed to Allen, who missed another three that was rebounded by Devin Robinson, who passed to eventual-hero Chiozza, who missed his tree. On one level, the Gators were still only down four points with Wisconsin holding the ball. Still in it. But on the other, Florida just had three wide open looks in a row from beyond the arc and missed them all. That, coupled with the end-of-game collapse and the soul-sapping Showalter “buzzer beater,” felt like it’d be the straw that broke the Gators’ backs. Chiozza provided redemption.

(USA TODAY Sports Images)
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from the obvious benefits of the Florida buzzer beater (namely, victory and a date with underdog South Carolina in Sunday’s Elite Eight), Chiozza’s shot also erased a potential controversy, sending its memory into the sports ether, never to be thought of again. Before Showalter’s shot at the end of regulation, Wisconsin called a timeout with six seconds on the clock. When the team inbounded, down three points, Florida was in a light defense and allowed Showalter to sneak through for his off-balance equalizer. The problem? Florida could (should?) have fouled Wisconsin so the Badgers wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get the “3.” It was the perfect situation to pull the move. With five seconds left, you foul a guy wearing red, he goes to the line for two shots and then the only way to tie or win is for Wisconsin to make the first free throw and then get an offensive board to put up for the game-tying shot (or game-winning if the ball bounced beyond the arc).

It’s a common debate in basketball — do you foul when you’re up three late in the game? Though I’m not in either camp — there are advantages and disadvantages to both — the combination of Wisconsin’s abysmal foul shooting (66.7 percent) and gaudy 3-point shooting (41.2 percent) sort of made this an easier call than most. Of course, if it doesn’t work, Mike White gets killed by the press for that.

But you don’t need buzzer beaters or game descriptions of Xs-and-Os to get at the heart of Wisconson-Florida. It was March at its maddest and you need look no further than the photo below. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then it can also tell to the tale of two buzzer beaters and the greatest game of the 2017 NCAA tournament.

(Getty Images)
Getty Images