The image is iconic.
Chris Chiozza elevated above the hallowed hardwood of Madison Square Garden the basketball and the ball at his fingertips. Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ looks on helplessly as Chiozza floats a three at the buzzer to beat Wisconsin. The shot sent the Gators to the Elite 8 and was instantly one of the best and most iconic plays and moments in Florida Gators basketball history.
That’s what Chiozza thinks it is now. History.
“I mean I’m fine with it,” Chiozza said. “It got old already.”
Chiozza says there isn’t a day that goes by where he doesn’t see the image or get stopped and asked about it or have the shot brought up. He understands why but he’s moved on.
Later this week the team will be back together in the practice gym and Chiozza’s final season in Gainesville start. He can’t believe it’s been four years but he’s not done making memories and he’s not going to let one shot be the last thing he does that gets remembered in Orange and Blue and Mike White reminds him of that.
“He just reminds me don’t let that play define you. Don’t think just because you made that shot that that’s the only thing people are going to remember you by,” Chiozza said. “I want them to remember me as a guy that was apart of a program and we brought the program back up. We went downhill for two years and I want to be known as one of those guys that brought it back up to an elite team.”
Florida finished 16-17 in his freshman season and then Billy Donovan left for the NBA.
“I was on my way to the airport to go home and Coach Donovan actually called me and he said, ‘I want to let you know before it gets out on the news that I’m leaving.’ He’s a great guy,” Chiozza recalled. “He does stuff like that where he wants you to know from him before anything gets out.”
Donovan assured Chiozza that he was going to be part of the search for a new coach and that Donovan was going to do whatever possible to make sure he left the Gators in good hands. When White was hired Chiozza didn’t know who he was. He watched some Louisiana-Lafayette games, liked the offense, like how White utilized his guards and how the team played scrappy defense. It reminded him of Donovan and some of the reasons he chose Florida in the first place.
“I thought it would be a good fit for me still, better than having to sit out if I did leave; not knowing where I even would want to go,” he said. “I talked to my family and everybody and my teammates, and we all decided to stay.”
Chiozza started 15 of the 18 SEC games in his sophomore campaign, White’s first with the team. He led the team in assists and posted the SEC’s best assist-to-turnover ratio.
More importantly, the team improved. Florida went 21-15 but missed the NCAA Tournament.
Last year as a junior Chiozza played in every game, backing up starting guard Kasey Hill. Late in the year he scored double digits in five straight games, a career high as the Gators made the NCAA Tournament and then an improbable run all the way to the Elite 8.
Chiozza knows the work he’s put in these last three year and what he’s done this offseason to continue to get better.
“This year, we have a chance to be that team again,” he said. “If we get everybody bought in, we have a chance to be a great team.”
That’s where Chiozza’s mindset is. He’s a senior and taking in everything knowing his days left in Gainesville are numbered. The team lost four seniors from last season and will look different when they hit the court this year.
This year will be different for the guy that everyone in the program calls Cheese as well. He played in every game last season but played 30 minutes just one. This year as the starting point guard, and only one other true point guard on the team, will likely play 30 minutes regularly throughout the year. He’s the face of the program.
“I’m doing everything I can to prepare for that. We played 30 minutes I think once last year. That was a tough game. Afterward I was so sore, I couldn’t believe I just played 30 minutes,” he said. “We’re just going to have to be prepared for it this year, take care of my body more than I ever have.”
The team will start practice this week. Chiozza will start having his “last time” moments. Tuesday was his last media day, Thursday will be his last first practice and his last season opener in Gainesville is just over a month away. He’s taking everything in and looking forward to making more memories.
He gets it. Chiozza knows why fans still talk about the shot. He laughed when the highlight had Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” dubbed over it but if you see him walking around on campus he doesn’t need you to bring it up. He’s moved on. A four year player, Chiozza wants to be remembered for more than just one shining moment in the Sweet Sixteen and he’s earned that already.