Nate Mason had every reason to be motivated but also emotionally drained going into his final home game Wednesday.
After all, the Gophers basketball team came so close to stopping a nine-game losing streak Monday only to suffer a stinging defeat in overtime at Wisconsin.
Two days later, Mason put the bitterness of that loss behind him to finish his career at Williams Arena with one of the most memorable senior night performances in years.
The Gophers nearly squandered a 14-point lead with under two minutes, but Mason came a point shy of his career high with 33 points to lead them to an 86-82 victory against Iowa in front of 11,732.
Iowa’s Isaiah Moss, who scored a career-best 32 points, nearly spoiled senior night with 26 second-half points, including a three-pointer with three seconds left to cut the Gophers’ lead to 84-82.
With no timeouts left, Minnesota tried to inbound the ball to Mason to get fouled but ended up throwing a lob pass that was nearly stolen. After leaping to grab the ball in midair, Davonte Fitzgerald was fouled and calmly hit two free throws to seal the team’s first win in more than a month.
Mason kissed the “M” at midcourt and was given a microphone to speak to the fans after the game.
“I had like a whole speech planned out, but I didn’t do it,” Mason said with a smile. “It felt like the four years went by with a snap of a finger. I got to do it in front of the best fans in America.”
The Gophers (15-15, 4-13) hadn’t won since Jan. 15 in overtime at Penn State. Their last home victory before Wednesday was Jan. 3 against Illinois. That was the last time the home crowd saw the starting five that opened the season with expectations to compete for a Big Ten title.
Mason’s senior season didn’t go the way he envisioned, but he never complained about losing teammates to injuries and suspension. He just kept battling. He wanted his teammates to do the same.
They did for him and fellow seniors Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou on Wednesday.
“The No. 1 question I get asked is how to do you motivate these guys with all that’s happened,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “It hasn’t been real hard to be honest with you. They just compete.”
Mason’s 14 first-half points sparked a 31-19 halftime lead against the Hawkeyes, but the first 20 minutes were filled with extreme highs and lows for the Gophers.
Minnesota surged ahead to open the game with a 22-2 lead after Mason’s three-point play capped a 19-0 run in the first 11 minutes. Iowa struggled mightily with eight turnovers to start the game.
The Hawkeyes (12-18, 3-14) had no flow offensively and made careless mistakes, but they came back with a stifling defensive effort of their own. The Gophers went scoreless for 7½ minutes and missed 10 straight shots to give their rival some life.
The Gophers’ lead in the final minutes vanished in Monday’s 73-63 overtime loss against Wisconsin. Fans were upset about a no call when Mason was tripped with a chance to win the game in regulation. He even bruised his lower right leg on the play, which was heavily taped and giving him pain Wednesday against Iowa.
“It hurts a lot,” Mason said. “But I wasn’t missing this game for nothing.”