Gators need Rosario’s best to make Final Four

AUSTIN, Texas — The Gators need Mike Rosario if they are going to reach the Final Four and have a shot at a national championship.
But they need the good Rosario, not the bad Rosario that sometimes drifts into his own world and causes Florida coach Billy Donovan to wonder if he is dealing with an imposter in a No. 3 jersey.
“There’s times where he can be a little carefree, can be a little bit loose,” Donovan said following Florida’s 78-64 win over Minnesota on Sunday night that earned the Gators a third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. “I’m on him all the time. A lot. Because I want him to be the best he can be on and off the floor.”
Florida’s trip here to open the NCAA Tournament typified what Donovan is talking about.
In Friday’s victory over Northwestern State, the bad Rosario showed up. Donovan was not pleased, benching the fifth-year senior guard for much of the second half after Rosario’s lapse early in the second half allowed an offensive rebound.
Rosario played a season-low 15 minutes and then was challenged by a fiery Donovan at Saturday’s practice.
“I didn’t sit Mike Rosario. He sat himself,” Donovan said. “He understands, when he’s locked in, he plays sharp and crisp and tight. When he’s loose and carefree and he’s just kind of floating around out there, we really don’t get much from him.”
Here is what can make Rosario such an enigma: He can disappear one game, get called out by the head coach, and then come back and do what he did Sunday against the Gophers.
The good Rosario didn’t just show up. He brought the great Rosario with him.
Rosario had his head into the game from the start, finishing with a team-high 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including a sizzling 6-for-9 performance from 3-point range. The 25 points marked the most Rosario has scored in his two seasons at Florida after transferring from Rutgers.
“I was a little worried because he was a little shaken up after the last game because he didn’t play well and didn’t play that much,” said Gators center Patric Young. “He came into this game very focused and knocked down some big-time shots.”
During the game’s tensest moments, it was Rosario and backcourt mate Scottie Wilbekin who provided Florida with some much-needed cushion after Florida’s 21-point halftime lead had dwindled to seven (53-46).
First, Wilbekin’s 3-pointer from the corner with 11:38 left slowed Minnesota’s momentum. A little more than a minute later, Rosario’s 3 dropped through the net.
A seven-point lead mushroomed to 13. You could feel the momentum shift back to Florida’s side at the Erwin Center.
“Those are some big shots,” Rosario said. “The one thing that coach talked to me before I transferred here, he said you’re putting yourself in big moments and big games, and just being in this big situation like that.
“It’s a very emotional moment for me because two, three years ago I wasn’t in this situation and now being with this program and being under Coach and with a good group of guys, it’s a great experience.”
That emotion carried over to the locker room after the game.
While he has probably caused Donovan a few more gray hairs the past two seasons, Rosario is liked by the coaching staff and his teammates.
The Gators circled around Rosario in the locker room celebration as he did a little dance. But then a more serious tone engulfed the room as Rosario became emotional and teary-eyed.
“This means so much to me. I’m at a loss for words,” he told his teammates. “This is why I transferred here. Thanks so much.”
Despite their roller-coast relationship, Donovan appreciates the way Rosario can quickly move past their confrontations.
“He’s got a very short‑term memory and he moves to the next challenge pretty quickly,” Donovan said.
The good Rosario outweighs the bad one most days.
When the Gators go out in the community to visit sick children or those less fortunate, Rosario is probably as engaging with the strangers as any player he has ever coached, Donovan said.
When he faces Donovan’s glare, Rosario isn’t one to cause a scene or disrupt chemistry. He takes on the challenge in his own unique way.
“The one thing I always say about Mike is Mike will assume responsibility,” Donovan said. “He is not a finger pointer. He does not blame other people. He’ll take responsibility. The one thing I appreciate, more than anything, is Mike let’s me coach him.”
That was evident in Austin on Sunday, with a berth in the Sweet 16 up for grabs. Instead of wilting, Rosario bloomed to meet the challenge.
The Gators now hope the good, or perhaps another appearance by the great Rosario, is here to stay for the duration of the tournament. That could mean more memorable shots for Rosario.
And more reasons to celebrate with his teammates afterward.
“It was just great to see him get emotional there at the end,” Wilbekin said. “For him to be in the NCAA Tournament — starting for the first time — and now he’s going to the Sweet 16.”