Mar 24, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Florida Gators guard Chris Chiozza (11) makes a 3-point basket to beat the Wisconsin Badgers in overtime in the semifinals of the East Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

FEATURE: Where Were You for These Moments? A Look Back at the Top Gators Basketball Moments

As I walked into Madison Square Garden as a 15-year-old, my mind was racing with the fact that I would get to see the Florida Gators for the first time and a March Madness game for the first time. I’d grown up a Gators fan, despite living in New York, because my grandparents lived in Gainesville. However, opportunities to see the Gators in person were slim. Nonetheless, the bracket worked out in a way that made it possible, and on March 24, 2017, I was finally able to. Little did I know what else was in store.

A little before 1 o’clock in the morning, Florida trailed Wisconsin, 83-81. It looked to be a disappointing ending to my first Gators’ game and a disappointing finish to their season. That was until Chris Chiozza flew down the court toward my end of the arena and tossed up a floater that seemed to stay in the air forever. The Garden’s brief silence turned into an eruption of cheers as the shot dropped into the basket and gave Florida a magic 84-83 win in the Sweet 16. I was frozen right after the shot, but once the shock faded away, I began leaping into the air in joy and excitement.

I’ve only had the opportunity to see what in perspective seems like a handful of the Gators men’s basketball program’s wins, like Chiozza’s shot at the Garden. I sat down with several members of Gators Nation, some fans, some media members and some in between, to get their feedback on what they consider to be the program’s biggest moments to celebrate 1500+ wins. Despite a disappointing past few seasons, it’s important to look back and reflect on the program’s amazing history.

Looking back at the program’s 1502 wins, 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, five Final Four trips and two National Championships, these are the 10 most monumental moments that people across multiple generations have deemed to be essential to the story of Gators’ basketball.

10. Sloan’s Second Stint with Gators Ruined by Scandal

Norm Sloan first coached the Gators from 1960-1966, five of which were winning seasons. However, the Gators remained out of the NCAA Tournament. Sloan led the Gators to unprecedented success in the SEC, including the program’s first win over the dominant Kentucky Wildcats. However, Sloan was out after the 1966 season as a relationship with athletic director Ray Graves never really developed.

Move forward 14 seasons, and Sloan returned to Gainesville, this time playing in the newly built Stephen C. O’Connell Center. When Sloan returned to the helm, Florida was coming off back-to-back seasons with single-digit victories. While the first four years of Sloan’s return saw little success, many referred to it as a rebuild, as the Gators finally saw some success come season number five.

Sloan led the Gators to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a regional semifinal appearance during the 1986-87 season. In the latter five years of his tenure, Sloan led Florida to a 120-75 record.

“In the late 1970s, they went into a really bad period,” said Steve Russell, who has been the sports director at ESPN 98.1 FM & 850 AM WRUF since 1998. “Embarrassingly not good. But they hired Sloan from NC State a second time and he brought the program back.”

“He changed the trajectory twice,” Gators Senior Writer Chris Harry added. Harry has covered Gators basketball with the UAA since 2011 but previously covered the Gators with the Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel. “When he came in, Florida had no history of success…He came back here and he started getting great players and started getting them you know, in dubious ways.”

As the football program was simultaneously being investigated, the University of Florida and the NCAA also investigated the basketball program for serious violations. While Sloan denied allegations, it became increasingly clear that there was corruption. One of the larger “moments of truth” came when former player Vernon Maxwell told a grand jury that he had been given cash and was allowed to continue playing despite failing drug tests.

Two weeks after denying having any role in the athletic department’s problems, Sloan and his entire staff resigned.

“Things happened off the court and clouded all of that,” Russell said about the scandal’s impact on the program’s success. “The program was turning a corner, but it set the program back again.”

9. Keyontae Johnson Collapses Mid-Game (December 12, 2020)

Perhaps one of the scariest moments in sports history took place during a Florida-Florida State basketball game in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The 2020-21 Gators had quite a bit of hype surrounding them after the previous NCAA Tournament had been canceled, but also because Keyontae Johnson was named the preseason SEC player of the year. The season started as expected with three straight wins to open the campaign. However, game four changed everything.

On December 12, 2020, the Gators traveled to Tallahassee for a matchup with No. 14 Florida State. The Gators opened up an 11-3 lead just under four minutes into the game, highlighted by a Johnson alley-oop from Tyree Appleby. The Seminoles called a timeout to regroup. 

Coming out of the timeout, Johnson began to stumble and then collapsed head first towards center court, with members of both teams immediately calling for help.

The teams somehow eventually returned to the court after Johnson had been stretchered off the floor and to a hospital. The Gators would fall 83-71, but at that point the only worry was Johnson.

Florida forward Keyontae Johnson (11) kisses the floor at midcourt after being introduced as a starter before an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Saturday, March 5, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Stamey)

Three days later, Johnson awoke from a medically induced coma in the hospital, with no memory of what had transpired. He was not cleared to play basketball again while he was still in Gainesville. However, Johnson left a huge mark on the Gators program, even during his absence from the court. 

“[Johnson was] basically another coach,” former Gators star Colin Castleton told Sports Illustrated.

Johnson would only return to the court one more time as a Gator, and it came on senior night, when he was an honorary starter and took to the O’Dome floor one final time to receive the opening tip-off. He proceeded to kiss the logo at center court and left the floor one last time to a standing ovation from the Gators faithful.

8. Chris Chiozza’s Garden Moment (March 24, 2017)

Despite trailing for almost the entire first half, the Florida Gators found themselves up 12 with just over five minutes to play in the Sweet 16 against Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden. It looked like the Gators, led by an impressive effort from KeVaughn Allen, were well on their way to the Elite 8. However, the lead diminished as the half winded down, and an incredible Zak Showalter three-pointer in the final seconds sent the game to overtime.

I remember thinking that it was over, as the Gators scored just one point in the opening three minutes of overtime. Madison Square Garden was covered in red by all of the Badgers fans overshadowing the Gators’ faithful. Wisconsin had the momentum and the crowd behind them. The Gators needed a miracle to advance to the Elite 8, but that’s exactly what they got.

A blown press by Florida gave Wisconsin the opportunity at a breakaway layup to almost ice the game, but Canyon Barry came from behind and perfectly timed a block from behind on Khalil Iverson’s layup. Chris Chiozza tied the game at 81 with an easy layup, but the Gators fouled a shooter with just four seconds to go. Nigel Hayes, who led the Badgers with 22 points, knocked down both free throws to give Wisconsin the lead.

“Everyone remembers Chiozza’s shot but people need to remember Canyon Barry’s chase-down block that kept it a two-point game,” Harry said.

Chiozza received the inbound from the opposite baseline, put down five quick dribbles and threw up a right-handed floater as time expired. The arena fell silent as the ball arced high above the rim and then dropped down through the nylon, sending the Garden into a frenzy.

Gators fans almost had no idea what happened. I remember being shocked to the point where I almost didn’t start celebrating until a few moments after Chiozza made the shot.

“You see in late-game situations a lot of plays where guys run with that momentum,” Harry said. “Get the ball going downhill, give it to your fastest guy, get him up there and let him do something. So that was an amazing play.”

While Florida would drop the Elite 8 contest against SEC-foe South Carolina, it remains as one of the greatest, if not the greatest shot in Gators’ basketball history.

7. Lon Kruger Leads Gators to First Final Four Appearance

Before the 1990s, Gators basketball saw very little success. The program failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth until 1987, in its 65th season. Aside from some accomplishments during the second tenure of Norm Sloan, which is now highly controversial, Kruger was the first to create any excitement around the basketball program. 

That elation peaked when Kruger led the Gators to the program’s first-ever Final Four. For WRUF’s Steve Russell, what Kruger did completely altered the direction of Gators basketball.

“For a lot of people it’s Billy [Donovan],” he said. “But what Coach Kruger did was unprecedented. Nobody expected them to be in the Final Four.”

The Gators were coming off of a 7-21 record when Kruger took the helm. He was able to lead Florida to a winning season in just his second as the head coach. After Norm Sloan’s rough second stint in Gainesville, the program was at a low point. However, Kruger brought faith back to the program and in his fourth year led the Gators to their first-ever Final Four.

Kruger
Former Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger, right, reacts after receiving a medal during a National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction event, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

“Billy [Donovan] is 1A,” Russell said about the first moments that come to mind. “But what Lon [Kruger] did was impressive.”

Florida would go on to lose to Duke in the 1994 Final Four, 70-65. It was a talented Duke roster that included three future NBA players, including Grant Hill.

Kruger put the Gators back on the basketball map, as he led Florida to consecutive tournament appearances including the trip to the 1994 Final Four.

6. 2013-14 ‘Core 4’ Put a Stamp on Careers

The 2013-14 Florida Gators were one of the most exciting groups in recent memory, with a passionate group of seniors returning to resolve “unfinished business.” A veteran core of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguete, who all had been to three consecutive Elite 8’s, anchored the Gators as they arose as the “top dog” in the SEC.

After dropping the first two ranked games of the year, it looked like the Gators might have the same luck as in recent years. However, after the loss to No. 12 UConn in the eighth game of the year, Florida flipped a switch. The Gators closed the regular season on an unprecedented 23-game winning streak and an opportunity to be the first team ever to go 18-0 in SEC play.

The final game of the season saw the long-time SEC bully Kentucky Wildcats come into Gainesville on Senior Night. It was clear entering the game that it would be an emotional farewell to the four stars who had given the program their all. That energy the four brought to the arena resulted in what was, at the time, the Gators’ largest margin of victory in UF-Kentucky history, an 84-65 thrashing.

While Florida opened a 21-point halftime lead, Kentucky closed the score to just six as the teams neared the midpoint of the second half. To nobody’s surprise, the ‘Core 4’ rose to the task again and knocked down some big-time buckets to build the Gators’ lead back up for good.

As Florida celebrated the first-ever 18-0 SEC record in conference history, the four seniors headed to mid-court, with pieces of the cut O’Dome net tucked behind their ears and kissed the Gators logo as they bid farewell to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

Will Yeguete wears the basketball net after the Gators became the first team to complete an 18-0 season in the SEC in 2014 following their win against Kentucky. (Photo provided by the University Athletic Association, by Jim Burgess)

“When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them,” Billy Donovan told Harry. “They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done.”

The team eventually fell in the Final Four.

“It’s just a shame that they couldn’t finish what they started because I think the narrative around that team would have been every bit [as great as 2006 and 2007],” Harry said. “They had no draft picks on that team. The other one (2006 and 2007) had four…and still in the SEC won 30 games in a row and went to a Final Four. So, what that team did was remarkable and how he (Billy Donovan) handled that team was remarkable.”

5. Mike Miller Beats the Buzzer (March 17, 2000)

Before the Chris Chiozza shot, Mike Miller’s shot to beat Butler was undoubtedly the best shot in Gators basketball history. The case can still be made as if it did not happen, the trajectory of the Gators basketball program may have been completely different.

Florida entered the 2000 NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed and had a date with No. 12 Butler in the opening round. The 24-7 Gators entered halftime holding a 31-29 lead but fell behind late in the game before they were finally able to tie the game in the final seconds of the second half. To overtime, we go. Butler’s LaVall Jordan, who was an 80% free throw shooter, missed two free throws with under 10 seconds in overtime that would have essentially iced the game. 

Instead, Florida received a lifeline. With just seconds to go, Teddy Dupay dribbled the ball up the court. He flipped it to Miller who hesitated and drove to the basket, tossing up a shot as he tumbled to the ground. The ball flipped over the front of the rim and down as the Gators somehow came away with a win.

After the 2000 trip to the National Championship game, the Gators failed to advance out of the first weekend of the tournament for five consecutive seasons. So what would have happened if Miller’s shot missed? Or if Jordan had made his free throws?

“Is Billy Donovan this guy, who if [Miller] misses that shot, is he this guy who can get really good players but can’t do anything with it?” Harry said.

Donovan may have never received an extension if Miller never made the shot, as the Gators would have failed to make it out of the first weekend in six consecutive seasons. Instead, Gators fans saw the success that Donovan could lead.

“It’s a what-if kind of thing,” Harry added. “But it’s every bit as important a moment in Florida basketball.”

4. ’06 National Championship Core Announces Return

The 2006 Gators capped off a tremendous season with a National Championship, led by a core of sophomores destined for the NBA.

Sophomore Joakim Noah was set to be a top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and was thought to be followed by Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer in heading to pro basketball. 

“[Joakim Noah’s] dad was Yannick Noah, who was a world champion tennis player…Taurean Green’s dad was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls, played in the NBA for 10 years and was a college coach…Al Horford’s dad was a draft pick by the Milwaukee Bucks and played in the NBA,” Harry said. “There’s Corey Brewer who grew up in a trailer park outside of Nashville, Tennessee and he’s going ‘I don’t want to go.’”

Brewer was the only one who did not want to leave and his decision caught the other three by surprise. However, Donovan made the next steps for the group very clear.

goodwin
Former Gator Taurean Green. Photo courtesy of FloridaGators.com.

“Billy got them in a room,” Harry said. “And he said ‘Guys, either all of you come back, or I don’t want any of you back. Because if we’re going to try to do this and repeat this thing, we need everybody. We all need to be on the same page here because it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life.’”

That was the only way that Donovan could sell the idea of returning. They each had an opportunity to play in the NBA, but they wanted to come back and do something special.

“It’s one thing to sell it, but it’s another to buy it and to have that buy-in,” Harry added. “And they had that.”

And the rest is history.

3. Billy Donovan Gets the Job (March 27, 1996)

Florida basketball history is highlighted by the Billy Donovan era and the success that he brought to the program over his 19 seasons. It’s very easy to look at the six SEC championships, four Final Four appearances and two National Championships as the biggest moments in program history. However, without the hiring of Donovan, there is no guarantee that any of those moments actually happen.

“It’s the hiring of Billy Donovan as much as it is those national championships because he starts building the foundation to get to that point,” Harry said.

After coming over from Marshall after a stint as the Thundering Herd head coach, Donovan’s first two teams with the Gators combined for a 28-33 record. But the most important aspect of those first two seasons were the improvements Donovan was taking in the way he coached and the way that he recruited.

“What I really always admired about Billy was that he was always looking to self-evaluate and improve,” Harry said. “After he made that [2000] National Championship, Billy Donovan went five years without getting out of the first weekend of the tournament…But along the way, Billy was evaluating and self-evaluating what he could do better and eventually made some changes and got the players he needed.”

After 19 seasons at the helm, Donovan finished with 467 wins, six SEC titles and two national championships. Of the teams he coached, 12 finished the season in the AP Top 25.

2. Gators Win First National Championship (April 3, 2006)

The 2005-06 Gators started the season unranked, despite going 24-8 and the year before. The NCAA Tournament did not treat Billy Donovan and company well, as they had lost in the first weekend the past five years.

However, by the fourth week of the season, the Gators were in the top 10. After starting the season 17-0, conference play started and humbled Florida. They dropped the first two contests and later in the year faced a three-game losing streak. From there, the Gators rode a five-game winning streak, including an SEC Tournament title, into March Madness.

Led by Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Lee Humphrey, who all averaged 10+ points, the Gators cruised through all but one of their tournament opponents. After dismantling George Mason in the Final Four, behind 19 point performances from Corey Brewer and Lee Humphrey, Florida had a date with UCLA.

The No. 3 seed Gators headed to the title game against the No. 2 Bruins but saw very little competition. Florida jumped out to a 36-25 halftime lead. The second half was no different and with the starting five scoring 58 points, Florida moved past UCLA and won the program’s first National Championship.

Clifton Harris, who moved to Gainesville in 1999, worked at Grog House Bar and Grill when the Gators won in 2005-2006.

“University [Avenue] was filled with fans for hours,” Harris said about the reaction after the National Championship. “People climbing poles and traffic lights. They were also on the roof of Grog.”

Not only was it the first National Championship in the basketball program’s history, but it was the start of an unprecedented run in college sports history, as Florida won four National Championships over the course of three years.

Honorable Mention: Jacob Kurtz Sums Up 2014-15 Season Against FSU (December 30, 2014)

Despite the departure of the senior core of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguete from the year prior, a lot of hope resided in the program down in Gainesville, with a proven head coach, Billy Donovan, still at the helm. After losing in the Final Four in 2013-14 Florida started the year ranked No. 7, but the Gators began to struggle and fell out of the rankings completely by the fourth week of the season.

Just over a week before the start of conference play and in the final game before the New Year, the Gators traveled to Tallahassee for a matchup with in-state rivals Florida State.

FSU led by five with under 2 minutes to go, but Florida crawled back into it. Dorian Finney-Smith tied the game at 63 with under 10 seconds to play, but the Seminoles had a chance to win it. Florida State’s Devon Bookert received the inbound in the right corner and chucked up a potential game-winning three, but the shot fell short. That’s when Florida’s Jacob Kurtz attempted to grab the rebound and send the game into overtime.

However, when Kurtz went up for the board, he popped the ball up and into the basket, to give Florida State the 65-63 win.

There was no way to grasp what had just happened, as the Gators, desperately looking for momentum, lost by scoring in their own basket. It was one of the earliest moments that I remember exactly where I was, sitting in my living room, with my jaw virtually on the floor in shock at what had just happened. After watching a heartbreaking loss to UConn months before in the tournament, it was potentially even worse to see a loss like that.

The moment summed up what would ultimately be a major letdown season for the program, which had high hopes after the 2013-14 run. Florida went on to go just 8-10 in SEC play, ending with a 16-17 record in what would be the legendary Billy Donovan’s final year with the program.

Honorable Mention: Down Goes No. 2 (February 19, 2022)

The Gators opened the 2021-22 season 6-0, but struggled as the season progressed. SEC play was not too friendly to Florida. A blowout loss to No. 5 Kentucky followed by a close, draining loss to Texas A&M found the Gators on a two-game losing streak and they found themselves with a 7-7 conference record late into the season. All signs were pointing towards three straight losses as No. 2 Auburn rolled into Gainesville, boasting a 24-2 record. 

The Tigers were one of the fiercest teams in the nation, with a very talented starting five that featured Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. However, Florida came out in front of a rowdy sellout crowd at the O’Dome and grabbed a one-point lead at the mid-way point. 

This was another game I was fortunate enough to be at and it wasn’t until halftime that the idea that the Gators could really win started to circulate the arena. Everyone started to play around with that idea but were too timid to say it loudly in fear of jinxing the Gators.

As the second half winded down, the Gators leading by eight points in the final few minutes, the student section began to migrate. It was unlike anything I had ever seen as the students located in the top sections waited to see if anybody would move down towards the lower sections in hopes of storming the court. Nobody wanted to be the first, but as soon as a group went, almost the entirety of the top sections flooded towards the Rowdy Reptiles.

While it looked like Florida would win big, Auburn made a big push late. The entire arena was forced to hold its breath as the Tigers looked for a game-winning shot. The shot never came, as Florida’s defense forced a turnover at the buzzer.

Tyree Appleby was the star of the show in the second half, scoring 20 of his 26 points, including four huge three-pointers. Appleby, alongside Colin Castleton, led the Gators to a gutsy 63-62 victory which resulted in the first court “storming” in the O’Dome since 1986. Chris Harry touched on why this moment does not make his list, but still deserves an honorable mention.

“It was the worst court storming I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “There’s like 20 kids out there. A school that’s done what Florida has done over the years doesn’t need to be storming the court…and it doesn’t have to be as pathetic looking as that.”

1. Back-to-Back! Gators Win 2007 National Championship (April 2, 2007)

Unlike 2005-06, Florida started this season at the top of the rankings following the announcement of the team’s core returning for another season. They proceeded to spend the entire season inside the top 10. 

The Gators lost just five games all season, losing back-to-back games just once as they picked up essentially right where they left off the year before. Despite losing two of their final three regular-season games, Florida cruised to another SEC Tournament championship, winning by a combined 59 points over the course of the team’s three games.

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Gators claimed a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history and looked to be the first since Duke in 1991 and 1992 to win consecutive championships.

The path was not necessarily easy as they headed through the Midwest Region, facing three top 25 teams to reach the final, including UCLA who they had beaten in the championship game the year prior.

Florida was destined for a meeting with the No. 1 team in the nation, Ohio State. The Buckeyes entered the championship behind a freshman duo of Greg Oden and Mike Conley. While Oden and Conley combined for 45 points, Ohio State could not stop the Gators’ relentless starting five who combined for 69 of the team’s 84 points. 

There was no stopping Florida, who secured back-to-back national championships, just 85 days after Urban Meyer brought Florida another football National Championship.

“In 2005-2006, when they started the season, that team was unranked,” Harry said. “In 2006-2007, they started the season [ranked] No. 1 and finished with a National Championship. So the expectations were completely different to start both those seasons. The end results were exactly the same. That’s an amazing juxtaposition of what you have to deal with as a coach.”

Donovan had secured himself as the most successful coach in program history, but also potentially one of the most successful in the history of collegiate basketball.

About Matt Quartararo

Matt is a fourth-year journalism major specializing in sports media and is also completing a sports management certificate. Starting in the Fall 2023 semester, Matt has served as a sports coordinator with WRUF. He also participates in sports broadcasting, providing play-by-play for a variety of Gators sports.

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