IOWA CITY, Iowa — Just when it seems like the Minnesota Gophers have found a new stride, they are knocked off their feet.
After a striking comeback Wednesday, the Gophers choked a double-digit lead, failed to convert in the final minutes and fell to Iowa, 63-59, their second loss to the Hawkeyes this season.
“A very, very tough loss for us,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We got outhustled in some situations and just outworked for balls, especially on giving so many second opportunities. You can’t win like that — you’re going to get beat every time.”
The Gophers (16-7, 4-6 Big Ten) had won four of five coming into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and they seemed to be gaining steam after an 0-4 start to conference play, especially coming off a come-from-behind overtime victory over Illinois on Saturday night.
That momentum came to a screeching halt.
The Gophers watched a double-digit lead dissolve in the second half, and after rebuilding the lead to five with 3 minutes, 24 seconds to go, they didn’t score again. Instead, the Hawkeyes (12-11, 4-6) — buoyed by Matt Gatens, who finished with 18 points — were the ones that made the clutch plays down the stretch to come away victorious.
In their home game against Iowa on Jan. 4, the Gophers looked helpless once the Hawkeyes went into a zone and eventually fell 64-62. In facing them a second time, the Gophers had prepared for that — but poor communication and sloppy execution spoiled their readiness.
“I don’t necessarily think it was the zone that got us, it was executing the plays that we had for the zone,” Austin Hollins said.
After a careless start — the Gophers missed seven of their first eight shots from the floor and had 10 turnovers midway through the first half — they were down 17-5 and looked lethargic.
But poor shooting and defense by Iowa provided an opportunity. Sparked by Sampson, the Gophers awakened and finished on a 22-7 run that put them up 27-24 at the break. They continued that push after halftime, extending the lead to 45-35 with 12 minutes left.
But in a matter of moments, the Hawkeyes had depleted it, pulling within one thanks to a 9-0 run. With 5:12 remaining, the Hawkeyes took the 51-50 lead on a pair of free throws.
“You could feel the momentum shifting,” Smith said. “We played kind of out of fear when they started to come back, and the same thing happened at our place. I don’t know what it is.”
Still, the Gophers responded. Three-pointers by Julian Welch, Austin Hollins and Oto Osenieks put them up 59-54. They finished with 10 threes on 19 attempts.
But that was it for them.
Devyn Marble hit a three, then drove for a dunk to tie the score with 1:53 to play. Bryce Cartwright broke that tie with two free throws with 65 seconds left, and Gatens clinched it on a layup with 8 seconds to go, capping Iowa’s ending 9-0 run.
In many ways, Wednesday’s game felt a lot like several of the Gophers conference victories. They have repeatedly startled fans with comebacks, stunned them with collapses and handed them dramatic endings nearly every night.
Here’s the difference: the Gophers seemed as though they had found a way to win those games. To make the plays they needed when they needed them.
But if those games felt like building moments, this loss felt like a wrecking ball through the Gophers’ modest construction. They’re making the same mistakes, and losing by them.
“We make a lot of quick decisions, and then we do too much at one time,” Sampson said. “And it causes us to blow our leads.”