The Florida Gators men’s basketball program has enjoyed an enormous amount of success on the court since 1994, when the Gators made their first Final Four.
That first appearance under Lon Kruger was followed up by an underachieving team failing to get out of the first round as a No. 10 seed in 1995, but the Gators would make four more Final Fours under Billy Donovan, and win two national titles consecutively. Florida has made eight Elite Eights in the last 23 NCAA Tournaments, seven in the last 16, and five in the last seven.
The Gators have dethroned blue-bloods and stepped over Cinderellas over that span. They have occasionally taken the upper hand in their rivalry against Kentucky — the richest team in college basketball today — and thoroughly drubbed UCLA, the most successful team in college basketball ever. They beat Duke and North Carolina in the same NCAA Tournament. And they ended the seasons of teams like Milwaukee, George Mason, pre-Brad Stevens Butler, Norfolk State, Florida Gulf Coast, and Dayton, building a reputation for smashing slippers.
Florida has hit buzzer-beaters in March, too, getting a layup from Dan Cross to beat James Madison in 1994 and a leaner from Mike Miller to top pre-everything Butler in 2000, and has hit big shots in big games — Corey Brewer’s unbelievable shot to help beat Georgetown in 2006 comes to mind, as do any number of Lee Humphrey threes, or any shot Scottie Wilbekin made in Memphis in 2014 — many times before.
But nothing has ever been like what we saw on Friday night.
Nothing has been the Madison Square Miracle.
Some of the reasons for that are simpler than you might think. Chiozza’s shot was like Miller’s, in that he rescued Florida from defeat, rather than overtime — which Cross’s shot did. There’s a massive difference between a game-winning shot and a game-tying one, something we can see demonstrated beautifully in last night’s action: Zak Showalter hit a shot every bit as great as Chiozza’s with seconds left in the second half, but it only tied and extended the game, while Chiozza’s ended it.
But Miller’s shot was not the last one of the last game of the day, and was not the exclamation point on a game nearly as fantastic. Florida and Butler went to overtime in that game tied at 60. The Gators shot just over 40 percent from the field that day; the Bulldogs were barely over 36 percent. Miller’s shot? It lifted him to 6-for-17 from the field, and he still had just 16 points.
That game also happened in the middle of the afternoon — and it’s only something I recall well because, though I was a fifth-grader then, I had the afternoon off from school for one reason or another, and saw it live. (My mom decidedly would not have pulled me out of school to watch the Gators.)
And it can be easy to forget that in 2000, the options for seeing that shot again would have been largely limited to watching the postgame show, or studio shows, or ESPN. YouTube was almost five years away; Twitter was just more than six. You could have maybe watched it online, somewhere, but I’m not sure where — and you might have spent a minute loading it.
Today, with nearly every phone smart and nearly every home wired for Internet access, it beggars belief to think that the majority of Florida fans in the United States did not see Chiozza’s shot live and/or in some form within five minutes of it happening.
Seminal, epochal, relevant: These are words we use in place of popular and memorable and well-known, because those words are not dressed up, and don’t have the same weight. But an experience being shared by more people makes that experience feel bigger, whether or not it is, and Chiozza’s shot was lightning that arced out to millions of souls, all shocked by the strike.
The best argument against this Madison Square Miracle being the biggest shot in Florida’s history — one that Gators great Adrian Moss, who knows something about that history, has made — is that it came in a Sweet Sixteen game, and Florida’s history has made making the Elite Eight an almost uncannily common occurrence. If it doesn’t earn a championship, or even a Final Four trip, the argument could unspool, why would it be any better than a shot that won a title, or got the Gators in position to win one?
Except: It’s hard to point to any single shot from those 2006 and 2007 runs that qualifies as such, with Brewer’s magical fallaway being the only candidate from those years, and it’s hard for me to say that Miller hitting a shot in overtime in a No. 5 vs. No. 12 game was truly more proximate or important to Florida making the 2000 NCAA Tournament final than any or many less memorable shots.
And: Chiozza hit this shot to beat a nearly indomitable team after midnight and at Madison Square Garden. Setting a cooler stage for a shot in basketball would be difficult.
So I’m standing by what I tweeted last night, in the heat of the moment: There has never been a bigger, better play in the history of Florida basketball than the one Chris Chiozza made to beat Wisconsin.
But I’ll also say this: I hope it gets topped someday.