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NCAA Tournament: Chris Chiozza inspires Gators with big second half

ORLANDO — Trouble was brewing.

It was halftime and the Gators were clinging to a one-point lead. Their best scorer, KeVaughn Allen, didn't have a field goal. Canyon Barry was shooting airballs. And, scariest of all, pesky little East Tennessee State looked like believers, like they were going to use halftime shopping online for glass slippers.

If the Gators were going to avoid being the NCAA Tournament's first big-name casualty, they needed a shooting star.

Say "Cheese."

That's what they call Chris Chiozza. The junior guard came off the bench and not only was he a shooting star, but a rebounding, stealing, assisting and leading one, too.

"I'm glad he's a Gator," Florida coach Mike White said.

White isn't alone. Because Chiozza is, the Gators are still alive in the Big Dance.

"He helped us win this game," forward Devin Robinson said.

Helped? He did more than help. If you just look at the box score, you'll see that Robinson's 24 points led all scorers. But Chiozza's second half led the Gators to victory.

That's why White said to give Chiozza a game ball.

After a jittery first half with no points, Chiozza dominated the second half and was the boot that stomped out ETSU's upset dreams.

He scored 14 points in 12 minutes. He pulled down three rebounds. He added an assist. This was just in the second half, mind you. He couldn't miss. Four-for-four from the field, including two 3-pointers. And 4-for-4 from the free-throw line.

"Chris Chiozza was terrific," White said. "He was really good."

But Chiozza's performance was more than just numbers. It was about guts and heart and toughness and will from a player who hasn't always possessed those attributes at Florida.

Lately, however, there has been something different about him. Maybe it can be traced back to early February when he posted Florida's first triple double in more than eight years. And he did it coming off the bench, something no one in the nation had done since 2008.

"Chris has always been a tough kid and, in my opinion, in the last few months he has really grown into a really tough kid," White said. "For whatever reason, he has embraced that."

Ask Chiozza about that and he just smiles and shrugs his shoulders. Tougher?

"Not really," Chiozza said.

But inspired, right?

"I think it's just a mind-set," he said. "I want to send my teammates who are graduating out on a good note. Gives you that extra edge and extra energy."

That energy was what set Chiozza's game apart from the rest of the players on the floor Thursday. In the second half, there were a handful of pivotal moments when the game could have shifted one way or the other, and in every one, Chiozza left his fingerprints all over them.

He drained a huge 3-pointer to push UF's lead to double digits with 11 minutes left. That slumped the ETSU shoulders.

A few moments later, the 6-footer with the 36-inch vertical leap skied over everyone, grabbed a defensive rebound, then drove the length of the floor for a layup. What a play. You could sense the Buccaneers' heartbeat fading.

And in the most critical play of all, he sprinted for a loose ball at center court, recklessly throwing his body into what looked like a human demolition derby, emerging with the ball and going in for a layup. That snuffed out whatever life ETSU had left.

"I knew I could beat everybody to the ball," Chiozza said. "Any time you get an easy layup, it's going to suck the momentum out of the other team if they have any going. That did help a lot."

For an exclamation point, Chiozza calmly made a couple of late free throws and stole the final inbounds pass of the game, dribbling out the clock as Gator fans rose to their feet.

The game ended with the ball in Chiozza's hands.

NCAA Tournament: Chris Chiozza inspires Gators with big second half 03/16/17 [Last modified: Friday, March 17, 2017 9:01am]
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