Payton Willis’ 3-pointer in transition ignited a sellout crowd and catapulted the Minnesota Golden Gophers to an eight-point lead with just over five minutes to go against the rival Iowa Hawkeyes. It punctuated an 8-0 run to break a 47-47 tie, perhaps a game- or season-defining sequence as the Gophers looked for another signature win to add to their NCAA Tournament resume.
Instead, the five minutes that ensued could be the stretch that encapsulates the Gophers season and keeps them out of the Big Dance. Minnesota failed to score over the final 5 minutes, 25 seconds as Iowa surged past the sloppy Gophers on a game-winning 11-0 run for a 58-55 victory that had the Iowa faction roaring behind Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes bench.
The Gophers were hapless on their final eight possessions, managing only three shot attempts in that span as the Hawkeyes overtook them. One was an ill-advised 3 by Willis that came without much ball movement. Another was a forced 3 by Carr in the closing seconds that was blocked well beyond the arc. And the final shot was a three-quarters-court heave from Carr that wound up well short at the buzzer. Daniel Oturu also missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 with 3.8 seconds remaining that would’ve given him another attempt to tie the game.
Minnesota had a series of mental lapses down the stretch, each seemingly more perplexing than the last. Leading 55-48, Minnesota committed a lane violation to give Connor McCaffery another shot at a missed free throw. Oturu traveled. Gabe Kalscheur threw the ball away. Alihan Demir lost his dribble. With the game tied, the Gophers allowed Iowa to secure an offensive rebound on a missed free throw, then fouled Bakari Evelyn at the end of the shot clock. With the Hawkeyes leading by two, Carr threw the ball out of bounds with 40 seconds left.
If that litany of errors isn’t ugly enough, the Gophers committed two 10-second violations earlier in the second half.
Richard Pitino has talked about the importance of making “winning plays” down the stretch for many years. The Gophers missed too many opportunities to make those plays well before Oturu missed his pressure free throw Sunday afternoon.
If the Gophers had simply attempted shots on each late-game possession instead of turning the ball over, Sunday’s result might’ve been different.
“I was more disappointed in the composure down the stretch,” Pitino said. “The turnovers, the foul at the end of the shot clock where we had them. That was where I was disappointed. We didn’t want to go win that game when we needed to.”
Pitino continually reiterated that the Gophers didn’t seem to want to win Sunday’s game. With what was at stake, that’s an egregious assessment. Minnesota (12-12, 6-8) is now tied for 11th in loaded Big Ten that is passing the Gophers by. A win Sunday would’ve tied them for eighth, kept them over .500 and given them a third home win against a then-ranked opponent.
Considering that Minnesota is 1-8 in true road games, banking home wins seemed like the surest way to remain in the NCAA Tourney conversation. Now the Gophers almost certainly have to steal a win or two on the road. They have Indiana, Maryland and Nebraska remaining at Williams Arena; Northwestern, Wisconsin and Indiana away from The Barn.
“They all hurt, but obviously this is a rivalry game,” a deflated Carr said postgame. “We’re kind of trying to make a run at the end here. To have the game in our hands, it was ours to lose.
“[Making the tournament] is the ultimate goal. We’re not just out here playing for no reason. We obviously want to go to the tournament.”
Against an Iowa team that ranked first in the conference in scoring and second-last in defense, Sunday’s game had the makings of a shootout. The Gophers hung 92 points on the Hawkeyes on Jan. 27 of last year against a similar roster, but it played out nothing like that as both teams experienced cold stretches throughout, shot poorly from 3-point range and missed too many free throws.
Believe it or not, Iowa actually had the game’s longest scoreless stretch, going 6 minutes, 2 seconds without a bucket late in the first half as they watched a 10-2 lead become a 28-21 deficit. Minnesota held a 31-26 lead at halftime.
Pitino predicted a “throwback” game with both teams featuring nationally-renowned big men, and he got it. The contest was largely dictated in the post, where Iowa’s Luka Garza scored the Hawkeyes’ first 10 points before the Gophers made adjustments. Then Garza came alive again in the second half, hitting a pivotal 3 late to pull Iowa within one. Garza fouled out on the personal that sent Oturu to the free-throw line with 3.8 seconds left, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds. Thanks mostly to Garza, Iowa outscored Minnesota 32-20 in the paint.
“Garza’s going to give you a shot,” Pitino said. “He’s so good. He’s so dominant.”
The Gophers are now 4-9 in single-digit games and 1-4 in games decided by five or less. They are lacking a killer instinct that cost them a handful of non-conference wins, which would be useful right now for their postseason hopes. They also let a victory slip away at Purdue early in January. That one appeared to be in the bag, as it did on Sunday.
Those losses can — and should — be the most demoralizing.
“There’s some devastation, which is good,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to hate losing, but tomorrow we get back to work. … You want them to hate it. It stings.”