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Florida 77, Missouri 75: Chris Chiozza capes up to take down Tigers

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Once again, Florida’s littlest man comes up huge.

Despite the best efforts of three referees, the Florida Gators and Missouri Tigers played a classic game on Saturday in Columbia, with both teams playing like their NCAA Tournament lives were on the line.

And in just over two months’ time, these two programs will be playing in that tournament, barring collapses.

But on this day, it was a player who had already come up with the biggest play with his team’s fate in the balance who came up with another.

Do-everything Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza intercepted a Missouri pass intended for Jordan Barnett the final seconds, then raced to the other end for a game-winning layup that fell with 0.1 seconds remaining and gave the Gators a 77-75 victory that only felt like larceny because of that final play.

The truth is, either team could have been a deserving winner or a disappointed loser.

Missouri shot the cover off the ball, sinking 11 of 18 threes and making 18 of 21 free throws to cover for some sketchier play inside the arc and getting 28 points out of maybe Barnett’s best performance as a collegian, and disrupted Florida’s offense for long stretches, enough to take four separate leads of eight or more points.

But Florida took care of the ball (six turnovers) despite not shooting all that well, and did damage against the larger Tigers inside, partly by securing 11 offensive rebounds. And though Florida made just 17 of its 25 free throws, some of the more important ones of those 17 came down the stretch, as the Gators erased a 70-62 lead with a 17-5 game-closing run that featured a 7-0 salvo in the game’s final 1:10 of play.

And while terrible officiating was, indeed, a factor in the game — Missouri’s Jeremiah Tilmon fouled out on what appeared to be a phantom call, Florida’s Jalen Hudson (16 points to pace the Gators off the bench) got some favorable calls on three-pointers, Missouri scored off an in-bounds steal after an inadvertent buzzer did not immediately produce a stoppage of play, and both teams had to deal with inconsistency that produced whistles for next to nothing and nothing for clear fouls — it was a factor that would have left either team steamed by a loss.

But Florida, thanks largely to Chiozza’s massive play at the most important moment, didn’t take one of those.

It took a win instead.