For everyone who’s been waiting for an all-time classic game in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, it’s happened, courtesy of last night’s showdown between Wisconsin (8) and Florida (4). The Sweet Sixteen round saved the best for last, as the final game of the night resulted in an overtime thriller that will likely be remembered as the iconic game of this year’s tournament.
Wisconsin had already opened the nation’s eyes by taking down top-rated Villanova in the Round of 32. That set up a matchup with a dangerous Florida squad who had coasted past their two previous opponents, outscoring them by a combined 41 points. The two prestigious basketball schools went back and forth up until midway through the second half, when the Gators opened up a 12-point lead at one point. Wisconsin slowly crawled back and got a timely steal with 18 seconds left, down by three. With the clock winding down, senior guard Zak Showalter was forced to take a desperation three-pointer. Amidst the heavy defense, Showalter connected on a beautiful running jump shot from behind the arc that sent Madison Square Garden into pandemonium.
In overtime, Florida attempted to stop Wisconsin’s momentum by fouling their worst free throw shooters. Although the Badgers are a very experienced team, they are among Division I’s worst free throw shooting teams, ranking near the bottom 5% on the nation with only a 64.4% success rate on the season. However, the Badgers performed admirably in this area during the overtime period, considering their widespread struggles. The game appeared to be in Wisconsin’s favor until Florida coach Greg White subbed in Canyon Barry, who would provide a major boost. Barry converted a sweet layup with about a minute and a half to play, and later proceeded to make two underhand free throws and authorize one of the highlights of the game.
After Barry’s second successful free throw, Wisconsin’s Khalil Iverson appeared to be wide open on the other end. But Barry flew in out of nowhere to make a sensational block and allow Florida to tie it up. With 24 seconds left, Wisconsin opted to run down the clock. With four seconds remaining, Nigel Hayes made a move to the basket, missing the bucket, but picking up the foul. Hayes is among the Badgers’ best players, but like most of his teammates, free throws are not his strong suit. Yet, with the season on the line, the senior found it within himself to convert both tries and put Florida behind the eight ball.
The man tasked with getting the basket would be Chris Chiozza, a speedy guard with a .312 three point percentage on the season. Chiozza got the inbound and sprinted up to the three point arc. Almost a mirror image of Showalter’s shot to send the game into overtime, Chiozza heaved up a last second shot on the run. As the clock expired, the crowd silenced for a split second, waiting to see if the ball would drop in. It fell straight through the net as the arena once again broke into madness and Florida punched their ticket to an Elite Eight matchup with South Carolina.
This game perfectly exemplifies the nature of March Madness, from the thrilling high stakes nature of each and every game, to the massive exhilaration for one side and devastating heartbreak for the other. Nowhere else in sports do we get such a fast-paced format with as many games of importance as this tournament provides. There are 67 games in total, and each one of them is do or die. There’s no coming back tomorrow, and for many of the players involved, no next season. Not every game is down to the wire, but with so many elimination games played over two and a half weeks, fans are bound to get some treats like last night’s.
For Florida, this game represents an unbelievable high for a program looking to reign again as national champions. KeVaughn Allen exploded for 35 points and will look to lead the Gatos to their sixth Final Four appearance and third NCAA title. Should they win it all, last night’s game will represent one of the most historic games in tournament history. Despite the jubilation felt by one side, there’s always another side in sports. Four of Wisconsin’s five starters are seniors and have now played their last game. Losing a game by the slightest of margins will always have athletes wondering what could have been, but nothing can take away from the fact that the Badgers played one heck of a game. They were part of an all-time classic, and even though they ended up on the wrong side of it, Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of. They played their hearts out last night to cap off an outstanding season. Many fans and media tend to overlook this side of sports, but ultimately all but one team will end up falling short.
If you missed the late night game, go out and find a replay of the fourth quarter and overtime, because reading this description doesn’t do it justice. It’s something you have to see to believe, the type of game that represents why people are so obsessed with March Madness.