AUSTIN, Texas - Florida guard Mike Rosario stood near midcourt, smiling, shaking hands and high-fiving his teammates as the final seconds ticked off the clock of a win over Minnesota that had started as a laugher and turned into a grinder.
Rosario and his teammates could finally relax: the Gators were on their way to the NCAA tournament round of 16 for the third consecutive year.
Rosario scored 25 points, most of it coming on six 3-pointers, and No. 3 seed Florida used an overpowering first half to earn a 78-64 win Sunday over No. 11 seed Minnesota in the third round of the South Regional.
After scoring just eight points and spending long minutes on the bench in Florida's first tournament game against Northwestern State, Rosario was the go-to guy for the Gators, who earned a trip back to the Lone Star State to play No. 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast University at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
"The message that coach gave us and gave me personally was 'you've got to go out there and compete,'" said Rosario, who was 8 of 12 shooting overall and 6 of 9 on 3-pointers. "In the second half there, we dug deep."
Florida coach Billy Donovan said he had called out Rosario in front of his teammates over his poor performance in the first game.
"He's a fifth-year senior ... and that's the focus he comes with?" Donovan said. "I think he felt bad about it. I'm on him all the time. A lot. Because I want him to be the best he can be."
Andre Hollins scored 25 points to lead the No. 11-seed Gophers (21-13). The Gators led by 21 at halftime before Hollins' 3-point shooting sparked a Gophers rally that pulled Minnesota within seven points. Rosario's last 3-pointer with 3 minutes left pushed the Gators' lead back to 16 and effectively locked up the win.
The rematch of old coaching rivals Billy Donovan of Florida and Tubby Smith of Minnesota looked for a while like it would be a laugher.
Donovan's Gators rode into the tournament as one of the best defensive teams in the country and backed that up in their first two games of the tournament. After thrashing Northwestern State, the Gators shoved aside the Gophers of the Big Ten in a 20-minute show of muscle and offensive firepower.
Defensively, the Gators denied just about everything the Gophers tried in the first half. Florida tied up Gophers shooters at the perimeter, challenged layups and blocked a dunk when Casey Prather stuffed Minnesota's muscular Trevor Mbakwe in a clear statement that the Southeastern Conference regular-season champs would be as tough as anything the Gophers faced in the Big Ten.
Offensively, it seemed like Florida shooters couldn't miss. The Gators shot 65 percent in the half, Rosario made four 3-pointers and Erik Murphy delivered a dagger when he buried one from the right corner to put Florida up by 22. Minnesota gathered itself for a brief burst when Hollins knocked down consecutive 3-pointers and a steal and layup trimmed Florida's lead to 39-23.
If the Gophers could have pulled within 10 by halftime, they might have been able to grab a lead in the second. Instead, the Gators scored nine straight points to roll into the locker room leading 48-27 and the "Gator Chomp" was sounding ominous, even 1,000 miles away from home.
Minnesota wasn't ready to roll over just yet and Donovan told his team as much.
"I knew (Minnesota) would have a lot of pride," Donovan said. "I know Tubby and I knew they would respond."
Hollins, who scored 53 points in two games, made three 3-pointers in an 11-2 run that took some of the swagger out of the Gators. Minnesota kept chipping away and trimmed the Florida lead to 53-46 with 12 minutes left.
"We didn't just hang our heads," Hollins said. "We just had to come out blazing."
But Hollins soon picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench for about four minutes. The Gophers had lost their first shooting option and by the time he returned, the Gators had built the lead back to 12 before a 7-0 run all but closed it out.
"We couldn't get any flow," Smith said. "When your point guard is your best shooter and your best scorer, it makes it tough."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.