A lot of things happened throughout Florida’s battle with Missouri in Columbia that weren’t very good for the Gators.
Then Chris Chiozza happened. Again.
With five seconds left in a tie game, Chiozza jumped the passing lane of Jordan Geist’s pass and took it coast to coach for a game winning bunny layup. But oh no. That sentence doesn’t do the sheer shock of the moment justice, so now we’re all going to watch it together:
CHRIS CHIOZZA FOR THE WIN!!! pic.twitter.com/RTdYeUwxYT
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) January 6, 2018
But the finish was a microcosm of the lesson we learned about this team throughout the game. By coming up with the rough basketball equivalent of a walk-off pick six, Chiozza gave the Gators a victory in a game in which they didn’t play particularly well… but that they fought tooth and nail for, kept responding to haymaker shots in, and never allowed themselves to fall out of.
The specifics are pretty crazy. Here’s how it all went down.
The Tigers raced out to a 24-12 lead midway through the first, but Florida countered the early onslaught with consecutive jumpers from Michael Okuaru, Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov, the latter of whom buried a three moments later to close within four. Mizzou punched back with a quick spurt to increase the lead to eight, but Florida came back with a three from Okuaru, a midrange jumper from Stone, another three from Koulechov and then another jumper from Stone to grab their first lead of the game at 34-32. And despite trailing for the overwhelming majority of the first half, the Gators took a 36-35 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Missouri came out of the gates swinging in the second half, launching a 10-2 run early to go back up five. Unfazed, Stone drained a three to get Florida back within two and then Chiozza hit one of his own to reclaim the lead- until Mizzou launched another run, this one spurred by threes from Jordan Barnett and then Geist, to build a ten point lead with ten minutes to go. From there, the Gators did their best to fight back into the game, but could draw no closer than five over the next nine minutes. And it looked like Florida was going down- going down swinging, but going down nonetheless- in Columbia.
But then Jalen Hudson brought Florida back to within 75-73 with an and-one on a left side drive to the rack, and the Gators forced a shot clock violation on the Tigers’ next possession. Koulechov’s layup to attempt to tie the game was blocked, but he managed to get the rebound and fire the ball over to Hudson before he lost his balance. Hudson then drew a foul on a three ball with 21 seconds left- an unappreciated skill by many that will never not amaze me- to set up a chance to take the lead. Hudson could only make two of three, though, creating a tie game scenario where the best case was to force overtime, the worst case was a Missouri bucket and a loss.
Or so it seemed.
Then Chiozza did his thing, and took the ill-advised pass to the promised land.
I’m still not convinced that Florida has a reliable backup path to victory on nights where their outside shots don’t fall (at least without John Egbunu and Isaiah Stokes). The Gators again got outrebounded and could only shoot 17-25 from the free throw line (68%). They did force eleven turnovers and score off of most of them, but that’s not reliable if the other team is careful with the ball. But for the first time since the Gonzaga game, this team scrapped and clawed for everything for a full 40 minutes, and in a way that’s an even better sign.
Florida is now 11-4, and 3-0 in the SEC, numbers that seemed impossible to reach after a loss to Clemson that put the Gators at 1-4 in its last five games (one of those losses being to Loyola of Chicago). But they’re reality now.
And with more gritty performances like this, those numbers will only get better.