With the first game in school history on Christmas Day, the Gophers men's basketball team had a chance to make a statement Friday night that it should be taken seriously in the Big Ten.The Gophers went from a 27-point road loss at Illinois in their first conference game to controlling No. 4 Iowa for an entire half their second time out in league play.
That would have been enough to gain some respect, but Marcus Carr and Brandon Johnson combined for 56 points and 14 three-pointers and the Gophers held off the Hawkeyes in a 102-95 overtime victory at Williams Arena.
"We're a pretty motivated team," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "Obviously, we just talked about what Illinois did to us. Let's learn from it. Let's not get negative. Let's not lose hope. It's one game."
In the battle of the Big Ten's top two scorers, Iowa's Luka Garza had 32 points, two more than Carr's 30. But Carr hit a three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left in regulation to tie the score and force OT at 83-83.
But the perfect example of not letting one game carry over to the next was Johnson.
The 6-8 senior had eight points combined in his previous two games, but he broke out for a season-high 26 points and nine rebounds off the bench Friday, including a school-record-tying eight three-pointers. It didn't matter that Johnson had only shot 2-for-10 from beyond the arc entering the game. The Western Michigan graduate transfer's confidence was evident when he went 4-for-4 from long distance in OT to lead the Gophers (8-1, 1-1 Big Ten).
"Everything that happened tonight was everything I dreamed of coming into the Big Ten," said Johnson, who was mobbed by his teammates on the sideline after the comeback victory. "I'm just thankful that I've got the team that I have that supports everybody whether everything is going good or bad."
Johnson had been battling an ankle injury, but he was exactly the spark the Gophers needed to hold off the nation's top-ranked offense.
The Hawkeyes (7-2, 1-1), who entered the night averaging 95 points per game, were held to their lowest scoring half of the season, trailing 38-33 at halftime after Garza was held to five points in the first half. Iowa still scored 50 points in the second half to lead 80-73 with 44 seconds left in regulation. Iowa guard Joe Toussaint's two missed free throws with 14 seconds left, though, left the door open for Carr's tying three-pointer.
Carr hit two threes in the last 31 seconds of regulation, and the Hawkeyes had zero field goals in the last 3:20 of the second half.
This was the eighth time in the past nine meetings at the Barn that the Gophers and Hawkeyes had the outcome decided by seven points or fewer, including a 58-55 Iowa victory last season. That was a painful defeat for Pitino since the Gophers blew an eight-point lead with less than six minutes to play. They got their revenge with their own late comeback Friday, the second victory vs. a top-five opponent in as many seasons.
The Gophers also upset No. 3 Ohio State last December at home. The student section then emptied out onto the court to celebrate with the team. This time it was just the players and their coaches enjoying the moment in front of empty seats during the pandemic.
"You think about how crazy that place would be," said Pitino, whose team opens Big Ten play with eight games vs. opponents currently ranked — the Gophers play host to No. 12 Michigan State on Monday before visiting No. 9 Wisconsin on Thursday. "But we play for each other in that locker room."