The players pressed white sweat towels over their faces. They bent over their knees and bowed to the floor. Minutes after the final score had been announced, many of the members of the Gophers men’s basketball team stood at center court, glaring up at the scoreboard as if it might magically change and alter the result.

The Gophers had just dropped to an unthinkable 0-5 in Big Ten play with four of those losses coming by two possessions or fewer. This last one, they lost in the most heartbreaking fashion yet.

After plowing back from a 17-point deficit, Minnesota (11-7 overall) had a chance to steal its first conference victory, trailing by two points with 3.5 seconds on the clock. After getting the ball on the inbounds pass, DeAndre Mathieu — coming off the bench for the first time at Minnesota — drove end-to-end to lay up the Gophers’ last offering and potential tying shot, the ball dropping in.

The crowd of 12,401 at Williams Arena erupted, desperate for something for which to cheer.

Seconds later, the call came: Mathieu’s basket was a fraction of a second too late. Minnesota lost 77-75.

“It’s like nothing is going our way,” a watery-eyed Mathieu mumbled down in the locker room afterward. “It’s never been this hard in a long time. This one definitely hurts though. I thought I got it off. I definitely thought I got it off.”

Minnesota led by four with 3:11 to go, but three made free throws by Iowa (12-5, 3-1 Big Ten) and a three-pointer by Jarrod Uthoff put the Gophers back down by two. A successful Mathieu layup tied the score, but after a turnover on each side, consecutive perimeter shots, from Carlos Morris and Joey King, wouldn’t fall. On Iowa’s last possession, the 6-9 Uthoff struck again, slicing a long jumper over mismatched Andre Hollins’ outstretched hand for the final two of his 22 points.

“If I would have jumped with him, I would have fouled him because I was literally right on him,” Hollins said. “He made a tough shot.”

Initially, the clock showed Minnesota had 6.1 seconds remaining for its last possession, but after reviewing Uthoff’s shot, officials ruled the countdown had momentarily frozen because an official inadvertently bumped the clock mechanism on his belt, stopping the clock. In fact, the Gophers had just 3.5 seconds available.

At the start, such a finish was hard to imagine. Following Minnesota’s four-game conference losing streak, coach Richard Pitino sent a message — shaking up the starting lineup.

Slumping Mathieu sat in favor of Mason. Charles Buggs got the nod over Carlos Morris. Mo Walker was benched for backup Elliott Eliason.

But even with a new look, the Gophers had no answer for Iowa early, falling behind 10-2 and trailing 38-27 at the half while the two typical starters who weren’t benched — Hollins, the embattled senior guard, and King, the struggling junior power forward — managed to go only 1-for-14 between them in the first half.

In the second half, however, Mason ignited a 27-12 charge, hitting four of the Gophers’ first five baskets in the run and propelling his team to a 73-69 lead.

“I felt like someone had to step up,” said the freshman, who finished with 17 points. “Step up big and try to will us to victory.”

Morris added a team-high 20 points, and Mathieu and King each scored 11.

Afterward, the coach called the loss the hardest yet to stomach for a team that twice has led by nine or more and twice has come back from deficits of 13 or more yet still has no Big Ten victory.

“There are guys in that locker room that are bawling, crying, and it’s January,” Pitino said. “We’ve just got to keep moving along. I thought we showed really good heart.”