MEN’S BASKETBALL: Shorthanded Gophers rally, fall just short in loss to Iowa
Minnesota cut a 23-point second-half deficit to three before falling 81-71
MINNEAPOLIS -- The University of Minnesota Gophers are giving, and getting, glimpses of what they want the program to look like — sooner rather than later. For the moment, they’re mostly coming up just short.
E.J. Stephens scored a season-high 22 points, and Jamison Battle scored 12 of his 20 points during a furious second-half rally that ran out of gas in the final minute of an 81-71 loss to Iowa Sunday at Williams Arena.
The Gophers started the game without three players because of injury, illness and COVID-19 protocols, including starting center and leading rebounder Eric Curry and sixth man Sean Sutherlin — big losses for a team that has essentially been playing a seven-man rotation in conference play.
“I think as a team we’re not satisfied with a loss, regardless of being undermanned,” Battle said, “and I think everyone in that locker room felt that, regardless of playing well in the second half. We can take good things from it, but it will sting a little bit.”
The Gophers (10-5, 1-5 Big Ten) whittled a 23-point second-half deficit to three, 74-71, with 1 minute, 30 seconds remaining on Battle’s fourth 3-pointer, igniting a crowd of nearly 11,000 at Williams Arena that was fully and vocally engaged as the Gophers rolled off a 23-6 run to get back into the game.
That’s the atmosphere coach Ben Johnson and his players want at home, something they got a taste of from the other side in last Wednesday’s 71-69 loss at No. 10 Michigan State.
“That helped us a lot,” Battle said.
It seemed to rattle Iowa, which committed six of its eight turnovers after intermission and had trouble attacking a 2-3 zone that Johnson employed for most of the second half.
“I thought we got a little tentative,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
But Iowa forward Keegan Murray, the nation’s leading scorer with a 24.7-point scoring average entering the game, finally stopped the bleeding when he calmly swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key to push the Hawkeyes’ lead back to six.
“I coached him up on that shot,” a relieved McCaffery joked afterward, adding, “If we come with less than our best, we’re going to lose to anybody in this league, and I think everybody knows that.”
Jordan Bohannon then made 4 of 4 free throws to seal the win. The Hawkeyes were playing without starting wing Connor McCaffery, who was sidelined by a back injury. Bohannon, Filip Rebraca and McCaffery’s brother Patrick each scored 12 for Iowa, which won for the sixth time in seven games to improve to 13-4 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten.
The Gophers are 1-5 in conference play despite having a chance in four of their five Big Ten losses, and Johnson continues to accentuate the positives for a team built from scratch, mostly through the NCAA transfer portal, after he was hired on March 22. Notable on Sunday was the play of freshman Treyton Thompson, a 7-foot center who finished with eight points and two offensive rebounds in a season-high 11 minutes.
Thompson’s presence in the middle of the Gophers’ zone defense also played a key role in Minnesota’s comeback. It was a step in the rookie’s development that ultimately will result in wins, Johnson said.
“If we worry about the little details day to day, eventually we’re going to break through. I told those guys today,” Johnson said. “I don’t know when, but we played a hell of a first half of the season in the Big Ten if you look at who we’ve played. Eventually, we’re going to have that breakthrough.”
The Gophers play Wednesday night at Penn State, although the team’s COVID situation may play a role in whether the game is played. Curry missed Sunday’s game because of a foot injury, but Sutherlin, guard Joey Kern and two assistant coaches were out with illnesses and/or COVID protocols.
“We hope those guys recover and get back to health and rejoin the team as soon as they can,” Johnson said. “And we hope that everybody who’s here, knock on wood, stays healthy and stays safe and we don’t have that pause, we’re able to keep going and keep playing.”