Being a point guard always involves being able to envision what is up ahead before everyone else does. Whether that means four seconds or 20 years in advance, it is all the same, as Chris Chiozza can tell you.
With four seconds on the clock in overtime, after Friday night had spilled into Saturday morning, the Florida junior recognized he could traverse the court in four dribbles to leave himself just enough time and room to leap from behind the three-point line, send the ball airborne and save the Gators’ season. Which he did.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” he said Saturday at Madison Square Garden before practice for Sunday’s Elite Eight game against South Carolina and after a night so soaked in text messages and emails — “From everybody I probably ever met,” he said — and adrenaline that he had to pull out all the stops just to get himself relaxed enough to sleep. Watching the movie “Neighbors” did the trick.
“Twenty years from now, when I have kids and we’re watching basketball together, they’ll probably be excited to see their dad make a shot like that,” he said.
We all keep watching because of moments like that. Players build their careers on dreaming of pulling off a moment like that. It is why Chiozza, who chose Florida because of coach Billy Donovan and chose to stay after Donovan left for the NBA, said, “You’ve got to cherish every moment you have.”
He had performed this moment hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in his family’s driveway in Memphis. In his imagination, he used to be Derrick Rose, the point guard for Memphis in the 2008 NCAA title game against Kansas.
“It was a redo. They weren’t hitting a buzzer-beater. We were,” said Chiozza, who was heartbroken when Mario Chalmers of Kansas scored with 2.1 seconds left to force overtime in a game the Jayhawks eventually won. “When you’re in the driveway as a kid, you always dribble the clock down and try to take that last-second shot. You probably make more than you miss out in the driveway. But any time you hit that one, it feels good, even when nobody’s around. So when you get that chance to do it in March Madness, with all those people looking in Madison Square Garden, it makes it that much better. It’s almost unreal.”
The hardest part was figuring out what to do once he did the magic. For a minute, he stood there. “Disbelief,” he said, “that’s probably the word.”
It was a popular word. South Carolina’s Duane Notice, watching with his teammates in the hotel after having beaten Baylor, said: “I was in disbelief. We were all like, ‘This is what March Madness is all about.’ ”
Make that double Madness. Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter had made an uncannily similar shot — against Chiozza — at the end of regulation to force overtime.
“He hit an incredible shot. He slipped. I thought he would fall down,” the Florida player said.
The winning shot was less like “Neighbors” than “Rasho mon,” the film in which one episode is seen from many different perspectives:
For Florida coach Mike White, the winning shot was redemption after having been on the losing side with Mississippi for the buzzer-beater by Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew in the 1998 Big Dance.
Here is how Florida forward Devin Robinson saw Chiozza’s play: “I was in the game, I saw him take the ball out, I was all the way in the corner and I just saw him sprint in front. First I thought he was throwing it up for a lob. I looked up and it just floated and I was like, ‘Oh, snap.’ Like this might go in.”
Teammate Justin Leon, a senior: “I was on the sidelines and I just saw him go full court, and I knew he’s a fast guy, so I figured he would be able to get down the court in time. I was watching the ball and I was just like, asking God, ‘Please don’t let my career be over here.’ ”
Chiozza, having seen the video countless times: “It looks like no way it’s going in. When I watch it, it looks like I lost the ball going up or something.”
To the true point guard, things always look clearer ahead of time.