Chris Chiozza waited for the inbound pass. The Gators trailed Wisconsin by two points in overtime of the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Four seconds remained as Florida’s odds of advancing to the Elite Eight dwindled. But none of that mattered as the Gators’ 6-foot guard received the pass and sprinted down the court.
THE GATORS WIN IT AT THE BUZZER! THIS. IS. MADNESS. pic.twitter.com/kJ8qYrHQhg— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 25, 2017
As he got in range, Chiozza picked up his dribble behind the three-point arc and released a floater as time expired. The sound of a swish cemented one of the most memorable plays in Gators sports history.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Chiozza said. “I just know it went in.”
And while they lost in the Elite Eight, the Gators didn’t give up on their NCAA Tournament goals. Florida’s road back starts tonight when it kicks off the season against Gardner-Webb at 7 p.m.
Although the Gators are starting out ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, coach Mike White has expressed multiple times that his team doesn’t deserve that ranking yet. He said the team’s inexperience and lack of “griminess” has held his players back.
However, one player White and the Gators can rely on is their buzzer-beating Badger buster.
Anyone who watched Florida basketball last year knows what Chiozza, a senior from Memphis, is capable of. He had the fourth triple-double in program history against Missouri on Feb. 2, and since then, he has been a reliable playmaker in UF’s offense. In the Gators’ final 14 games, Chiozza averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.
“He made a big jump there mid-last season,” White said. “And I think he’s ridden a little wave of momentum. He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
It’s that confidence that allowed Chiozza to step up as a leader in his junior campaign. White said Chiozza has become even more of a role model as he heads into his last season at UF.
“We need him to lead these guys,” White said. “He’s as important to this team as anyone on this roster.”
While Chiozza didn’t start a game last season, he didn’t let that affect his mindset or how he played. The opportunity to start in his senior year will reveal what his teammates already knew — Chiozza’s a leader, a talented one.
“I feel like he’s the same leader,” forward Kevarrius Hayes said. “Even though he was playing behind, it wasn’t as much like a second-role thing. Everyone was a leader. And he felt like it was his part to do what he could to help the team.”
However, being a leader comes with more expectations, and because White is looking for more players to step up, eyes will be on Chiozza. He will be tasked with taking over the starting point-guard role that Kasey Hill held last season and with helping the team’s six freshmen get accustomed to playing in Florida jerseys.
White also said he expects Chiozza to communicate more in games and be the ultimate example for the team on offense and defense.
“He can’t be the guy that jogs through a cut, that isn’t as prepared as everyone else for the scouting report, that takes a play off in any aspect of the game,” White said.
At the same time, the Florida coach doesn’t want him to be a flashy player, the guy who takes over on the court and tries to be something he isn’t.
White’s not the only one with high expectations for Chiozza. His teammates look to him as someone who brings them together.
Hayes said Chiozza has become more vocal heading into his senior year.
“He definitely tries to talk with everyone now,” Hayes said. “Sometimes we’ll all get together and play (NBA) 2K tournaments or sit back and watch some basketball games.”
Despite an early setback — a shoulder injury suffered on the Gators’ second possession during an exhibition game against Jacksonville that will leave him questionable for the season opener — Chiozza knows what his team is capable of, and that Florida will be ready for tonight’s game.
“We all get along on and off the court, and we kind of know each other’s games now,” Chiozza said. “I feel like we have pretty good chemistry already, but I mean, it’s only gonna get better throughout the season.”
You can follow Jake Dreilinger on Twitter @DreilingerJake, and contact him at [email protected].