A focused Mike Rosario leads Florida to win against Minnesota

AUSTIN, Texas -- Mike Rosario can talk all he wants about how much he’s matured this season, how he finally added whatever mental ingredient was missing from his arsenal as a basketball player. And Florida coach Billy Donovan can agree and say that Rosario has grown as an individual since he arrived in Gainesville as a Rutgers transfer three years ago, how much he loves Rosario’s affection toward his teammates.

All of that is fine.

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But still, there are times when the Florida redshirt senior guard acts like a player who’s less mature, a player who should know better, a player who’s still missing that special ingredient.
So, Donovan benched him for a mental mistake in the team’s easy second-round win against Northwestern State on Friday.

Yet, here’s the thing with Rosario. He’s a scorer, and when he’s on, he propels the team like we predicted when he first transferred south. Against Northwestern State, Rosario was not that player, and he subsequently spent the next 48 hours beating himself up about it.

But on Sunday vs. No. 11 seed Minnesota, Rosario had the right mindset, and as a result, he scored a season-high 25 points and tied his career best with six 3-pointers to lead the third-seeded Gators into the Sweet 16 with a 78-64 win.

If Rosario vacillates between an immature college student and an experienced team leader, Sunday was a day for the latter.

“In the first game, I wasn’t on edge,” said Rosario, who scored just eight points in 15 minutes in the second round. “Coach expects a lot out of me being a fifth-year senior. Coming into that first game, I wasn’t doing my job. Everybody has a job to do -- that’s something coach teaches us every day in practice. I felt I let my team down by not doing that.”

Conversely, heading into the Minnesota game, Rosario felt the energy coursing through his body. He called it being on edge, and though Rosario said he wasn’t necessarily looking to score vs. the Gophers, he also said he wouldn’t hesitate if given the opportunity. Again and again, Rosario found himself with the opportunity. Again and again, he buried his shots.

Which is what he didn’t do against the Demons on Friday, and as a result of Rosario’s demeanor, Donovan put him on the bench for most of the second half. Then, in a Saturday meeting, Donovan challenged him in front of his teammates. You’ve played five years and you’ve never made an NCAA tournament, Donovan told him, and this is the effort you bring in your first game? This is how you act?

“In order to be a great teammate, you really have to be an affectionate guy and a caring guy and a loving guy,” Donovan said. “He’s expressed himself a lot of times verbally how he feels about his teammates and how he feels about being here. That’s just who he is. But there are times with Mike when he can come not focused, when [he’s not] accountable and responsible. The reason our relationship at times has been somewhat rocky is because I hold him to a really high standard of accountability. When he is on edge and he is focused, he plays better.

“I didn’t sit Mike Rosario for 11 minutes [vs. Northwestern State]. He sat himself. We needed to move on without him. That’s something he battles with sometimes, coming with that focus all the time. When he’s like that, he’s really, really good. I’ve tried to hold him to that standard, because he’s not that great of a player when he doesn’t play that way.”

Now, Rosario and his teammates move on to face the tournament darlings, 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.

But first the Gators had to weather a tough Minnesota run. Though Florida took a 48-27 lead into halftime, the Gophers unfurled guard Andre Hollins in the second half. With Hollins totaling 25 points for a Minnesota offense that suffered major offensive woes without him, the Gophers cut the lead to 53-46 with 12:35 to play.

Hollins, however, picked up his fourth foul less than three minutes later. (“I was fighting over the screen, a 6-foot-2 point guard going against a 6-9 center, and they called a foul on me,” an incredulous Hollins said afterward.)

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith sat him for nearly four minutes while the Gators increased the lead to 12. By the time Hollins reentered the game, he had lost his scoring touch and Minnesota had no chance to finish the comeback.

“He’s our most efficient offensive player. …  We just couldn’t produce any offense," Smith said. "You have to score the basketball. When you’re not scoring and trying to manufacture offense, it can be tough. We went through a stretch where he was out of the game that we couldn’t get any flow. That’s the tough thing. When your point guard is also your best shooter, it’s tough.”

As well as Hollins played, however, this night belonged to Rosario and the Gators.

He played great Sunday, because he was on edge and ready to be the best teammate he possibly could be. He had that mental ingredient.

But -- and this is still the issue -- there’s no telling how he’ll show up for the Sweet 16.

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