Late in the first half of Sunday, Gophers basketballers watched in frustration as Iowa’s Filip Rebraca smacked his chest and pointed to the court at Williams Arena as if his team owned the court after a steal and an emphatic dunk.
Rebraca, a transfer from North Dakota, was playing in his first frontier match, but as fans witnessed, he seemed to have the feeling early on that this was unlikely to be a competitive rivalry game.
First-year coach Ben Johnson’s Gophers were as much as 23 points behind – two assistants and four players due to injuries, illness and COVID-19 protocols – but they hit back to make it up in an 81-71 loss against make the Hawkeyes interesting in ahead of the announced crowd of 10,925.
The Gophers (10-5, 1-5 Big Ten), who were on a 31-11 run in the second half, announced before the game that players Eric Curry, Sean Sutherlin, Danny Ogele and Joey Kern would not be playing .
“There would be something that would allow us to make a game out of it,” Johnson told his players during the shootaround. “That was kind of her only focus. They are a determined group. I think they did a good job finding ways to compete.”
Trailing 63-40 with just under 12 minutes to go, the Gophers went for a 2-3 zone defense and found confidence offensively to eventually play 74-71 with 1:29 after Jamison Battle’s fourth three-pointer.
“Going on a run and hearing the barn get loud is something we’ve been waiting for all season,” said Battle, who finished with 20 points.
It actually looked like the exhausted gophers might end the excitement, but Keegan Murray ended a nearly 5.5-minute drought in Iowa with a three-pointer. The Hawkeyes, who finished the game on a 7-0 run, got 25 points from Murray, the nation’s top scorer.
“Because of the understaffing, the coach told us everyone had to be aggressive,” said EJ Stephens, who led the Gophers with a season-high 22 points. “After the Michigan State game, I thought I did a good job coming downhill and making plays. I want to build on that this year.”
BOXSCORE: Iowa 81, Gopher’s 71
The biggest missing piece from the U was curry. The starting senior center and captain was recovering from an ankle injury sustained in Wednesday’s 71-69 loss at Michigan State.
Taking Curry’s place was senior transfer Charlie Daniels, who came into play averaging just 1.7 points in 10.6 minutes this season and did not start at Stephen F. Austin last season.
The Hawkeyes (13-4, 3-3) didn’t have a size advantage by any means with a frontcourt of 6-9 Rebraca and 6-8 Murray, but they did have a solid points advantage in paint (34-14) and rebounds (25-15, including 10 on offense) in the first half to lead 43-27 at halftime.
Sutherlin, the U’s top scorer from the bench, missed his second game of the season. But freshmen Abdoulaye Thiam and Treyton Thompson gave the Gophers seven scholarship players on Sunday. That made them eligible to play under the Big Ten’s new forfeiture and deferral rules during the pandemic.
Daniels opened the second half by cementing his season-high with his second field goal of the game, but Jordan Bohannon’s three-pointer gave a 23-point lead for the second time at 11:54.
With the game threatening to enter insurmountable territory, Johnson had little more up his sleeve than a zone defense, playing the rarely used 7-foot Thompson, who hails from Glenwood, Minnesota.
The Gophers shot 57% in the second half, including 5 to 9 from three-point range. They also managed to win the rebound fight after halftime 16-15 against Iowa.
The same Minnesota fans who had braced themselves for a blowout earlier rewarded their team’s efforts with resounding cheers despite hard chances in the second half, even when the Hawkeyes finally got their bearings in the last minute to pull away.
“We knew it was going to be tough as the game got into the ’80s,” Johnson said. “I thought maybe ours [zone] would slow her down. … It’s the chess game, but in the end it worked out for us. To my surprise, it froze them a bit and gave us some energy.”