South Carolina’s win over Baylor was, for the most part, lacking for drama. Florida’s victory over Wisconsin later that night was not. Chris Chiozza etched his name alongside Kris Jenkins, Christian Laettner, Bryce Drew, and other NCAA Tournament legends as his last-second three went down in the Gators’ 84-83 overtime win over the Badgers.
It might be hard to top what happened on Friday night, but South Carolina and Florida will try as they meet for the third time this season and with both teams each holding a W over the other this year. We got together with Andy Hutchins, the managing editor of Alligator Army (SBN’s Florida blog), to help us take a look at what to expect tomorrow afternoon and to tell us how he absolutely lost his mind when Chiozza made the shot.
--Obviously, first things first, last night was...let's say...emotional. You tweeted that it was the biggest play in Florida basketball history. Can you take us through that sequence and what you were feeling as a Florida fan? How do the Gators hit the reset button and refocus for tomorrow?
I was in a bar for last night's game. (I'm never in a bar.) I was with friends -- some friends whom I haven't seen in months, others whom I was meeting for the first time -- for last night's game. (I rarely watch games with friends.) I watched Florida build a lead and then give it up as those friends -- all slightly more prone to being quick to criticize than I am -- groused about Mike White and Kasey Hill and so forth. (This was more familiar, but still somewhat unusual for this Gators outfit.)
We had all more or less resigned ourselves to the loss at the end of regulation, and certainly had when Wisconsin opened its lead in overtime. The Canyon Barry block and Chris Chiozza layup to tie it were both dope, but it felt far more "true," for lack of better words, when Nigel Hayes was fouled and then made both free throws.
After Chiozza hit that shot? I practically leapt from my human body for about a minute. I hugged a friend as we ran around the bar. I failed at high-fiving a stranger I had never met -- twice. I screamed so much for about 30 seconds that I was instantly raspy.
It was magic and mayhem. I couldn't believe it. And I wasn't there.
So I have no idea, honestly, how Florida hits the reset button -- or even tries to hit the reset button -- after that. How do you go from hitting a buzzer-beating three in overtime at Madison Square Garden in the NCAA Tournament to coming off the bench? It's beyond me, yet Chiozza's going to have to try. KeVaughn Allen's going to have to try to follow up a 35-point game that was even better than Chiozza's, at least for the totality of his dominance. Barry made one of the great defensive plays in any NCAA Tournament ever. Every other Gator probably feels like he ought to step up.
Mike White's going to try to have his guys locked in and prepared for a team it has beaten and lost to this year, and for a game that will happen some 38 hours after the most exciting moment of his and his players' lives. And he might: Those players have listened so well to White for the last year that they Instagram and tweet about "no noise" and being "(emoji lock) in."
But what Florida is going to try to do over these next 40 hours is something Florida has not done in this era, in which a play can be literally in your hand as it happens or the moment after, or in which Chiozza's phone can be deluged with texts seconds after he authors history. And I wouldn't blame them for being overwhelmed.
--This is the third matchup between these two teams this year - with each team splitting at home. Was this the matchup Gators fans wanted since both teams have played each other before, or were they of the mindset of it not mattering who'd they play?
I think Florida fans generally preferred seeing the familiar foe to the unfamiliar one, and not just because of that familiarity: Johnathan Motley is scary good, generally, and I don't think it's particularly controversial to say Baylor has more talent than South Carolina right now. But South Carolina is playing utterly phenomenal basketball, and is on a run that makes as little sense as Chiozza's three did, having blitzed Marquette and Duke and then shut down the Bears. The Gamecocks have played maybe their best three games of this season in their last three games; Florida, despite its heroics and its destruction of Virginia, has not.
That said, I really, really like this matchup for Florida. The Gators have dealt with South Carolina's defense well before, and probably would not have split their two games had they hit literally two threes in Columbia, rather than zero. Chris Silva, crucial throughout this Tourney run, has played poorly against Florida, both with and without John Egbunu -- and Florida's win over the Gamecocks came without Egbunu around, so this same set of personnel can look to that win for best practices.
I don't think this is a walkover, certainly, and I do think Sindarius Thornwell is likely to be brilliant. But he was brilliant in both games against Florida this season, and that only yielded one win. If Florida can do enough to keep other contributors from sticking daggers in its side, it has a great chance to win.
--After they lost back-to-back games against the Gamecocks and Vandy, the Gators rattled off a nine-game winning streak. What changed for them after that first defeat to the Commodores?
I think the intensity ramped up, and so did the pace. Those games were grinding affairs -- the loss in Columbia was, unbelievably, a 70-possession affair played in the 50s; the loss to Vandy was a 61-possession game -- and Florida's first seven wins in that span were in games of 72 or more possessions. Florida's defense is keen on either forcing turnovers or defending until the shot clock expires, and its offense loves to run off those turnovers; enabling Kasey Hill and Chiozza to hit the jets in transition, as Florida did often over that streak, is a recipe for success.
Now, the other thing that happened after that first defeat was losing Egbunu, and the 1-3 finish to pre-Tourney play in which Florida could not solve Vanderbilt or overcome Malik Monk on a good Saturday for Kentucky and whistles in Rupp. But those games were close losses to good teams -- arguably, the Kentucky game was closer than the 10-point margin of victory; Vandy won by 10 in overtime in the SEC Tournament -- and didn't really force any crisis of confidence for the Gators. They have seemingly buckled down in this NCAA Tournament, and are committed to the process that got them to this point in this season.
And now that process has them on the doorstep of the Final Four.
--Who is the X-factor for the Gators if they're to win tomorrow?
It's Allen. If he puts up 35 again, somehow, I think Florida's going to have more than enough points to win -- especially because it's unlikely he would be that hot with no teammate scoring in double figures to help him again, given that South Carolina has better personnel to throw at him. But if Allen struggles, as he had in Florida's first two games, it puts a lot of pressure on someone else to step up in a big way, or for multiple Gators to step up in smaller ways.
--We've seen this team put up gobs of points (ask Auburn and LSU), but they've been involved in several games where offense has been at a little of a premium. What's your expectation for how tomorrow's game will go?
I think both teams come out raring to go, with Florida's initial surge based more on leftover adrenaline than anything. And I think if Florida can get a lead out of that, or at least not fall behind by a significant margin, the Gators could control this game.
But I also think it's possible that we see a game closer to the one in Columbia, in which great defenses lock down less impressive offenses, and every play turns into a masochist's dream. I think that sort of pace and style would favor South Carolina, if only slightly.
Forced to pick between those two potential outcomes, I'm leaning toward the former being more likely.