IOWA CITY – In a season that has yet to produce a conference victory, the Gophers men’s basketball team gave the Big Ten leader a scare Sunday night.
But it was no more than that.
Peter Jok got Iowa started, Jarrod Uthoff woke up late and the No. 4 Hawkeyes crept past a lingering Gophers team 75-71 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The loss was the Gophers’ 14th in a row and 17th in 18 games, and it further deepened the worst start to Big Ten play in program history, set with a home loss to Michigan on Wednesday.
But once again, the Gophers (6-19, 0-13 Big Ten) threatened just enough for another loss on top of the pile to feel like a missed opportunity. They have lost seven of their past eight games by seven points or fewer, and this loss came to a top-five team playing on its home floor. Jok scored 27 points and Uthoff 24.
“I was really excited about the way we competed,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We showed some fight.”
But later, Pitino interrupted himself while talking about the Gophers’ momentary comeback.
“I’m sounding like a broken record,” he said. “I’ve got to find some new material.”
The Gophers, meanwhile, look as if they are in need of some late-game inspiration.
Minnesota, which was buoyed by an aggressive-driving Nate Mason, lost its early momentum heading into halftime, but still had energy left in the tank at the end. The Gophers drew within four points six times in the second half, before Joey King hit a pair of free throws to pull them within two of Iowa (20-5, 11-2) with 2:58 left to play.
But after Anthony Clemmons hit one of two free throws, the Gophers’ next possession ended in King taking an off-the-mark three-pointer instead of the ball getting to the hands of Mason, who finished with 14 points after going scoreless in the first half.
Pitino sad he was pleased with King’s look, but both he and his players noted the team’s options were limited against Iowa’s zone.
“The zone kind of messes us up. We have to run sets,” freshman guard Dupree McBrayer said. “If it’s man[-to-man], anybody can go make a play where there’s a mismatch.”
When no one did, Uthoff responded with a dunk that sent the crowd to its feet and put yet another game all but out of the Gophers’ reach with 1:17 left.
Bakary Konate and King combined for five points in the last 10 seconds before time ran out, moving Iowa alone into first place in the Big Ten due to Maryland’s loss Saturday and Indiana’s loss Sunday.
For the first 17 minutes, with Iowa struggling, it looked like the Gophers’ game to lose. Uthoff was virtually invisible early, starting 0-for-7 from the floor, and center Adam Woodbury was forced to sit out the last nine minutes of the first half with two fouls. Minnesota took advantage in front of a seemingly stunned silent crowd.
The Gophers outrebounded the Hawkeyes 23-18 and held a 26-22 lead after Jordan Murphy hit a pair of free throws with just more than four minutes left in the half.
That’s when Uthoff woke up.
After Jok drilled a three-pointer that cut the Gophers’ lead to two, Uthoff took control, converting three layups and a three-pointer and blocking two shots in the last 2:38, sending the Hawkeyes to their locker room amid raucous cheers.
“He’s a matchup problem,” Pitino said. “He shoots it from like halfcourt and he makes it, and then he’ll drive by you. So he’s an NBA basketball player. It’s difficult.”
The Gophers wouldn’t be able to make up the difference … although they came close, yet again.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting,” guard Kevin Dorsey said. “We’ve got to keep going into practice and working.”