GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators coach Billy Donovan knows the routine on Senior Night.
You take pictures. You honor players for what they have done for your program. You thank their parents and families and make sure the night is special for everyone. And then you play a game.
But Donovan quickly realized Wednesday that his 17th Senior Night at UF was going to be different.
“I was a little bit concerned,” Donovan said. “I say that because I’ve never seen this happen before.”
What was this, you ask?
The story Donovan told after the Gators dispatched of Vanderbilt 66-40 began in the locker room about 15 minutes prior to tipoff. That’s when Donovan, still inside preparing for the game, saw Mike Rosario storm in with a disheveled look.
“I’m like, ‘Mike, what are you doing?’ ” Donovan said.
“I just gotta do something,” Rosario replied.
“Mike, we’re warming up right now,” Donovan reminded his fifth-year senior guard.
The next thing Donovan saw was Rosario pulling out his cellphone to make a call.
Donovan was relieved to learn Rosario wasn’t ordering a pregame pizza from Domino’s. Instead, Rosario didn’t see his mother, Joanne, in the crowd and wanted to make sure she had arrived at the O’Connell Center.
Joanne and the family came down from Rosario’s home in New Jersey for the on-court ceremony prior to the game.
Donovan told Rosario not to worry about his mom, she would be fine, and to return to the court. Rosario eventually rejoined his teammates in the warm-up line.
“It was a really big deal for him,” Donovan said.
Meanwhile, Donovan noticed the Gators’ other two seniors, guard Kenny Boynton and forward Erik Murphy, seemed a little more frazzled than normal, too.
“Erik Murphy was emotional. Kenny Boynton was as emotional as he can be,” Donovan said. “He doesn’t show it as much, but I was concerned coming out of the locker room. I could just tell the look on their face. There is a realization that’s really, really hard. I think the realization that ‘this is it.’ I mean, Erik Murphy will never ever, ever — or Kenny Boynton or Mike Rosario — will never take a shot in this building again.
“That’s how fast it goes by. I think sometimes those guys get that realization that this is it. In those moments, sometimes it’s really hard to get your team focused. I thought they did a really good job of getting themselves ready to play.”
Once Donovan handed out the framed jerseys, the pictures taken and the hugs shared, the senior trio settled down to help the Gators cap their final season with a perfect 15-0 home record.
Rosario didn’t have his best game Wednesday — he finished with five points on 2-of-7 shooting — but that wasn’t about to damper his mood following the game. For the fifth-year senior who transferred to Florida after playing two years at Rutgers, Wednesday was as much about the journey and the experiences shared as it was Florida’s 24th win or the outright Southeastern Conference regular-season title the Gators clinched.
“I’m lost for words,” Rosario said. “A lot of people doubted that I could come here and do this. But it’s in the books. They can look at it on the Internet, on the highlights and one day on the banners. My name was on this roster. It feels so great to come where I came from, making the transition I did.
“I looked forward to every challenge, every day, with Coach Billy. There were ups and downs … but Coach and I built a lot of trust with me making the right decisions and doing the right things for the team — and it all played out.”
Murphy scored 10 points Wednesday and Boynton, his roommate for three seasons prior to this year, finished with a team-high 15 points. Boynton heated up in the second half to hit three 3-pointers and help the Gators pull away.
“Kenny is just a quiet, humble kid,” Murphy said of the second all-time leading scorer in UF history. “He doesn’t say much about himself. He easily could — look at his numbers.”
Said Rosario: “A guy like Kenny, he has been through a lot here these last four years. For him to perform the way he did — get his stroke going in the second half — that really meant a lot. For him to go out with a bang, and for me and Murph to be right there with him means a lot to us.”
Their Senior Night may have started out in an unusual way, but Boynton, Murphy and Rosario ended the night cutting down nets to celebrate the program’s fourth outright SEC regular-season title and sixth in program history. The three won an SEC title as sophomores too, though Rosario had to sit out that season due to NCAA rules.
“I was very happy for those three guys,” Donovan said.
Boynton didn’t reflect too deeply on what Wednesday meant to him personally. He is more interested in adding more memories to his UF collection.
“I think this team is special,” Boynton said. “I wouldn’t take it back for anything in this world, staying these four years. We’ve just got to finish it out. The season is not done.”