OMAHA, Neb. — Around this time last year, Florida junior guard Mike Rosario was in Gainesville watching his teammates participate in the NCAA Tournament from his on-campus housing apartment.
A transfer from Rutgers, Rosario practiced last season, but could not compete. When he got his first NCAA Tournament opportunity last weekend, Rosario tried to make the most of it. He, sophomore forward Casey Prather, and the rest of the Gator bench provided a surprising, and much-needed, spark in the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament, combining for 41 points and 17 rebounds.
"It's a great experience," Rosario said. "I've been waiting to step up like this the whole year for my team. But I feel like right now is a crucial time for me to come off the bench and provide that energy and whatever I can. I thought that me and Casey really made a jump and we've got to keep it going because it keeps a lot of positive energy for all our players, and it gives our coach a lot of trust to make those decisions that we can make the plays that we've been making."
Friday against Virginia, Prather had 14 points and several key blocks and rebounds.
"He gave them a great lift," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "And when you look at someone off the bench, I don't want to say that you weren't counting on that, but that is a pleasant surprise, and he was that for them. He is very athletic. His threat is more slashing from the glass and they played him a little bit as a four, so he's a matchup problem."
On Sunday, with Prather suffering from a 101-degree temperature and flu-like symptoms, Rosario came up big with 12 points. Sophomore guard Scottie Wilbekin also gave the Gators impressive minutes to relieve starting guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, and forward Cody Larson offered solid minutes.
"When we can get points off the bench it's a plus for us," Boynton said. "I'm happy for Casey and the day he had (Friday) was big for us. With Mike, I think Mike can come off the bench every game and score like that. He was a great scorer at Rutgers so it's just a matter of time, him getting comfortable."
The timing of the greater bench production isn't necessarily coincidental. When sophomore forward Will Yeguete was lost for the season late last month with a broken foot, coach Billy Donovan had readjust his starting rotation and also integrate the bench in the new schemes. Donovan isn't ready to declare that this team has it all figured out, but he believes the starters and bench are starting to jell at the right time.
"It's a tribute to those guys that they're that locked in and focused," Donovan said. "I didn't tell Mike, 'Hey, listen, we need your scoring' or tell Casey anything. When you're locked in those things happen for you. I felt like Mike the last couple days, although he didn't play a lot of minutes against Virginia, he had a good day on Saturday getting ready for (Norfolk State). He gave us good contributions. I think in this tournament you have to have different guys step up at different times and different moments."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.