Chris Chiozza stood there in the media room, a towel around his neck and a washed-out look on his face. We approached him cautiously, like the Florida senior was a walking mousetrap.
You wanted to hear what he had to say without getting too close. Because we’ve all been there.
Stuffy. Achy. Sore throat. Tired for no really good reason.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I’ve got my towel.”
He covered his mouth.
That should do it.
Not that we got any closer.
“My touch really wasn’t there,” he said. “The ball didn’t feel right.”
Of course it didn’t
The man had been sick with his annual case of strep throat since late Sunday.
“Once a year,” he said.
Way to get it out of the way.
Four days after adding to his legacy with his swipe-and-score in Columbia. Mo., Chiozza was back at it again Wednesday night in Gainesville. It wasn’t one of those special shooting nights and a chunk of his linescore read like something you would expect from a recovering strep-aholic — 3-of-10 shooting with two turnovers.
He still went all Chiozza on Mississippi State in Florida’s 17-point victory.
That he played at all was a show of grit. Mike White said he hoped going into the game Chiozza could play some minutes.
“He hadn’t broken a sweat since our last game,” White said. “He hadn’t touched a basketball in two days. I figured he’d give us something. I didn’t think he’d give us this.”
It wasn’t vintage Chiozza, but it was extra Cheese. He played 28 minutes and scored 10 points while adding seven assists and three steals. He helped Florida play the closest thing to a full game of tenacious defense it has all season.
But to fully appreciate his performance, you have to grasp the guts.
At shoot-around five hours before tip-off, Chiozza felt awful. You and I would have stayed home and ordered Chinese delivery.
“Not much energy,” Chiozza said. “I took a Tylenol, had a quick nap. I was feeling better.”
He’d play, but not start in a game that felt like a fistfight against the physical Bulldogs. Florida rode Egor Koulechov’s hot start to a first-half lead, but it was only 38-35 Florida four minutes into the second half. One reason it was still that close — the man with the golden lay-up on Saturday had missed a wide-open one down the lane 3:39 into the second half.
“I was sick,” he said.
Coming across the top of the arc seconds later, the weakened Chiozza took a shot to the shoulder from a Mississippi State defender as he dribbled.
“That was a little frustrating having guys body check you while you were dribbling,” Chiozza said.
A few seconds later, he drained a three, then barked at the official about the earlier missed call.
A few seconds after that, he made another three and was fouled, converting the free throw after a timeout. The Bulldogs never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Up 10 after the clutch Chiozza shots, Florida continued to play tough and smart and pulled away, leading by 23 before things got a little sloppy defensively late.
“Huge,” was how Mississippi State coach Ben Howland described the big shots.
He followed that up by describing Chiozza to perfection.
“Chiozza’s so smart, so tough, so clever, so savvy,” said Howland.
On Wednesday night, he wasn’t sharp. But he hit the two dagger shots of the game.
And — most importantly — he was there.
“He just keeps making big plays for this team.” White said. “To give it everything you have even though you feel like crap gives a big boost to the entire team.”
It wasn’t the most spectacular encore to the Miracle in Missouri, but it was everything he had to give from his drained body.
“A little tired,” he said. “But really, all I have left is a little cough.”
On cue, he showed us.
Thank goodness for that towel.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.