Florida Gators’ Chris Chiozza’s last-second heroics against Wisconsin marked the third SEC victory of the Sweet 16.
The SEC, a conference notorious for its domination in football and baseball, is largely overlooked when it comes to basketball. After receiving only three bids to the tournament last year and failing to have a team advance past the Sweet 16, the expectation for the SEC in the 2016-2017 season was very low.
However, through impressive out-of-conference results and a competitive regular season, the SEC earned five spots in this year’s tournament. Of the five teams who qualified, three played in the Elite Eight, the most the SEC has seen in one year since 1986. The respective paths to the Elite Eight for South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky were full of challenges, being forced to outplay top programs like Baylor, Wisconsin and UCLA.
The Sweet 16 game between Florida and Wisconsin will likely go down as the most entertaining game of tournament. After Wisconsin’s victory over defending champion Villanova and Florida’s domination of the University of Virginia, these two teams met in a game that kept fans on the edge of their seats. The Badgers, after overcoming an eight-point deficit in the final minutes of the game made a 3-pointer to force overtime. The overtime period remained close, and with only two seconds remaining, Wisconsin held a two-point lead over the Florida. However, at the buzzer, junior Chris Chiozza hit an improbable 3-pointer, breaking the hearts of Badger fans and sending the Gators to the Elite Eight for the sixth time in 10 years.
The Kentucky Wildcats, led by coach John Calipari are no stranger to deep post-season runs. Reaching the Elite Eight in six of the last seven seasons, the Wildcats, in recent years, have been one of college basketball’s most dominant programs. After beating top-draft prospect Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats faced off against another top program, North Carolina. The back-and-forth game highlighted by two critical shots in the final 10 seconds ended with a 75-73 North Carolina win, ending the Wildcats’ hope of another Final Four berth.
South Carolina has also turned many heads this tournament, advancing the Final Four in arguably the tournament’s most competitive bracket. Beating both Duke and Baylor by substantial margins, the Gamecocks entered their Elite Eight matchup with Florida full of momentum. After trailing by seven at halftime, South Carolina came out of the locker room looking like the team it has been all tournament. The Gamecocks were led by senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, who scored more than 20 points for the fourth time this tournament.
The Gamecocks’ strong second-half performance helped them achieve a 77-70 win over the Gators, advancing them to their first final four in school history. The Gamecocks’ victory also marks the fourth time in tournament history that a No. 7 seed has reached the Final Four. In the next round, South Carolina will face No. 1 seed Gonzaga for a chance to play in the national championship. The SEC’s only remaining team and unlikely hero looks to bring home the first championship trophy the conference has seen since 2012.