NEW YORK—Mike White seemed to want to say something to somebody, but he didn’t seem sure what or to whom. The Florida coach was damp from one of those wild postgame showers, when his team flung water all around the locker room because they had not only just won a third game in the NCAA tournament but also because they had won it on a wild and improbable shot as the overtime clock expired, shortly after the game had been extended when the same was done unto them by Wisconsin. And so White looked almost dazed when he emerged from the Gators’ locker room some 15 minutes or so later, on his way to the postgame press conference. His eyes danced around a line of reporters along the hallway wall, and he said, “Wow.” He walked a few more steps, and he said it again. “Wow.”
Have you seen what he was talking about? The in-stride, running fling from Chris Chiozza at the buzzer that splashed through for Florida’s winning three points? The way Canyon Barry, a guard with 12 blocks all season, stuffed a would-be game-sealing dunk just a few seconds earlier? The shot that sent it to overtime in the first place, an off-kilter three from Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter, a former walk-on, to tie the game with less than three seconds left in regulation? It was the kind of game you feel like should conjure ten thousand words but that actually summons few of true use. It leaves you with mouths agape and heads shaking. It leaves you with ‘wow.’
Inside the locker room, a TV reporter asked Barry to swim against that tide, to put that bonkers 84–83 win into some kind of verbiage. “You can’t,” he said. “It’s the greatest game I’ve ever been in.”
Both teams had at points led it by double digits, Wisconsin by 10 points in the first half and Florida by 12 late in the second. But then you could feel it all around, that rising sense of something, that this-game-is-not-going-quietly chill that creeps up when there is one big shot and then another and the team that was just leading is now reeling and it seems the game has changed. The Badgers began putting back their misses and Bronson Koenig hit another of his threes, and then the Gators’ lead was just five at the 90-second mark of regulation and three when the clock read 30. Florida again ran its offense deep into the shot clock and came away without even a look, and Wisconsin had the ball with 15 seconds left to score three points. The mind flashed back to Koenig’s heroics against Xavier a year ago, to Nigel Hayes’s game-winner against Villanova last Saturday.
It was not Koenig or Hayes but Showalter, who had not scored at all in the game’s first half, who had the ball in his hands coming out of a timeout. And then it was Showalter, not those familiar heroes, who took a few dribbles and lifted up off-kilter for a running three that fell through to tie the game with 2.5 seconds left. He flashed a smile and turned to the stands to quickly trace his beltline with both hands in imitation of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was sitting in the second row cheering on the Badgers. There was that something.
But then that something came again, in doses. It was nearing 1 a.m. at Madison Square Garden and things got weird. The Badgers were up two, inbounding the ball with 38 seconds left in overtime. Sophomore guard Khalil Iverson broke free downcourt, and a baseball pass sailed over Florida’s pressing defense and found his hands. But there came Barry’s leap and extended hand, and there was Iverson, getting the ball knocked away from him.
“Coach always says don’t give up on plays,” Barry explained after. “I channeled my inner LeBron-in-the-Finals.”
Chiozza drove and tied it on the other end. Twenty-four seconds left. On the other end Showalter dribbled out some time and then dumped it off to Hayes, who drove and was fouled with four seconds to play. He had not been having his finest night at the line—he had made just five of his previous 12 free throws—but he sank both, and Wisconsin led by two. The Gators did not have a timeout to draw up anything special. That appeared to be that.
“Let playmakers be playmakers,” said Gators forward Kevarrius Hayes. “That was the plan.”
The ball was inbounded to Chiozza, whose last name his teammates abbreviate to Cheese, and in those four seconds he shortened the court into something traversable, if only by a player as quick as he. As he readied to shoot, the Badgers’ defenders mostly backed off to avoid a costly foul. Chiozza’s speed stayed breakneck, and he launched from two feet without really setting them, his left leg trailing behind slightly as he floated forward.
“That was the only shot I had,” Chiozza said. “So I had to take that one.”
The ball arced for the game’s full final second, and by the time it made its way through the net Chiozza had arrived on the right block, practically in position to catch it.
Only then did he stop. He raised his right hand toward the arena’s famous ceiling. A trio of teammates trapped him in a hug, carrying him backward, until the rest of the team caught up from the bench and joined in. The Badgers mostly stood there, stunned. The building’s decibels could split ears. The officials reviewed the play quickly, practically as a formality. Then they indicated that it counted. The Gators had won. This arena that used to host mega-watt prizefights had seen perhaps its greatest counterpunch in years. One segment of the arena erupted. The other deflated. It was not clear how much either side could believe it.
“My goodness, just a huge win,” said White. “What a wonderful college basketball game to be a part of.”
“I feel like I’m a part of history right now,” said Kevarrius Hayes.
“It was just another emotional rollercoaster that we rode to the end on this one,” said Showalter, whose turn as hero had been crushingly brief. “I'm still flustered. This one is gonna hurt for a long time.”
There was an especially long and perfectly understandable break before reporters were let into the Badgers’ locker room. When it was opened it was somber and mostly quiet, the air occasionally marked by heavy sighs between reluctant questions and answers. A few hundred yards away the Gators were unexpectedly calm, having drained themselves first in earning their victory and then, quickly and behind closed doors, in celebrating it (splashed water, chest bumps, shouted names—the works).
And so just 20 minutes or so after what was likely the most unforgettable game any of them had ever played, and certainly the best, wildest, most important one to date, they let out their own deserved exhales of a different kind. They answered questions and started up the occasional quiet S-E-C chant ahead of their game with South Carolina some 37 hours later. But they mostly flicked through their phones, not talking all that much, as if still processing the whole wild night themselves. Forward Devin Robinson held up his iPhone’s screen to show 70 messages and counting.
“I’m probably gonna read like five of them and go to bed,” he said. What was there to say?