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Chris Chiozza, Christian Laettner and the forgotten supporting actors

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Christian Laettner, meet Chris Chiozza. Your contributions to March Madness lore may be 25 years apart, but the memories will go on for far longer.

Laettner, who was already well-known, made “The Shot,” in 1992 that kept Duke’s hopes alive for a repeat championship, which they won. Chiozza, a popular figure on the Florida campus, but relatively unknown elsewhere, sent the Gators to the Elite 8 on Friday with “The Shot 2.”

One should be careful before making comparisons between that legendary game between the Blue Devils and Kentucky, but Friday’s game can be compared favorably. It should be remembered that a quarter century ago, Duke was no more a dominant power than Florida is today.

At the time of Laettner’s heroics, the Blue Devils possessed one national title, accomplished the previous year. He gave them the chance to repeat, which they did. Florida has two titles and Chiozza’s running three-pointer kept the Gators hopes alive for winning a third.

Quick quiz: who is the last school to win back-to-back national titles? For those outside of Gainesville, the answer is the Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007. Those teams were the first to accomplish the feat since Laettner’s teams.

Friday’s game may not have matched the level of talent and execution of two teams playing at the very top of their games in 1992, but it was EVERY BIT as compelling. For example, Florida overcame a double-digit first half deficit to take the lead by halftime.

Not to be outdone, the Badgers also overcame a 10-point, second-half deficit to regain the lead. Twice.

“What a wonderful college basketball game to be a part of,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “I’m so proud of our guys; I can’t even put it into words.”

Such history-making shots understandably dwarf everything else that happened during the game or other contributors to the victory.

Who remembers Grant Hill as the one making the length-of-the-court pass to Laettner, or Laettner stomping on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake while the latter was on his back under the Duke basket?

From Friday night, who remembers that KeVaughn Allen set an all-time tournament scoring record for a Gator with 35 points? Who needs a reminder about “The Block” by Canyon Barry on Khalil Iverson with only 34 seconds remaining in overtime?

Allen’s offense was desperately needed. If Barry does not do what he did, the Badgers go up by four points and make Chiozza’s moment in history a highly unlikely event.

What about poor Zak Showalter of Wisconsin? After sending the game to overtime, he breaks into the “Discount Double-Check” gesture while pointing at its creator, Aaron Rodgers, sitting in the stands.

Or perhaps Showalter’s teammate Nigel Hayes? After struggling mightily at the free throw line all night, Hayes hit the two that seemingly won the game for the Badgers with four seconds left.

The headlines were already being written until Chiozza blew up the story.

Yes, this was unquestionably a legendary game, but not enough saw it. While it was still early evening in March 1992 when Laettner broke Kentucky hearts, it was almost 1 a.m. when Chiozza’s dagger had the same effect in cheese country.

If you were still awake, you saw something special. The best news is you get to see them play for a trip to the Final Four on Sunday against conference foe South Carolina.

Friday’s game will be tough to top.

 

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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