Late in the first half of Sunday, Gophers basketball stalwarts watched in frustration as Iowa’s Filip Rebraca punched the chest and pointed to the Williams Arena field as if his team owned the spot after a steal and emphatic dunk.
A transfer from North Dakota, Rebraca played in his first Border Battle, but he seemed to feel early on, as fans saw, that this probably wouldn’t be a competitive rivalry.
Freshman coach Ben Johnson’s Gophers trailed two assistants and four players by a whopping 23 points on Sunday due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, but they bounced back to make things interesting in an 81-71 loss to the Hawkeyes.
The Gophers (10-5, 1-5 Big Ten) announced before the game that players Eric Curry, Sean Sutherlin, Danny Ogele and Joey Kern were offside on Sunday.
Trailing 63-40 with less than 12 minutes left in the second half, the Gophers defeated the Hawkeyes 31-11 to come in 74-71 after Jamison Battle’s fourth three-pointer of the game with 1:29 left. Battle had 20 points and eight rebounds.
It actually looked like the exhausted Gophers would work out the shocking surprise, but Keegan Murray ended the rally with a three-pointer of his own for the Hawkeyes, who ended the game with a 7-0 run. Murray finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
The biggest missing piece was starting senior center captain Curry, who was recovering from an ankle injury he sustained at Michigan State earlier in the week.
In place of Curry, senior transfer Charlie Daniels started, who has scored just 1.7 points in 10.6 minutes this season and was not a starter at Stephen F. Austin last season.
The Hawkeyes (13-4, 3-3) by no means had a size advantage with a frontcourt of 6-9 Rebraca and 6-8 Keegan Murray, but they had the significant lead in points in the paint (34-14) and rebounds (25 -15, of which 10 offensive) in the first half.
Murray, the nation’s leading scorer, and Rebraca combined for 24 points and 14 rebounds in the first half to give Iowa a 43-27 lead.
Senior EJ Stephens had a team-high 24 points for the Gophers, who aren’t sure how healthy they will be before their next game Wednesday at Penn State.
Sutherlin, who missed his second game of the season, was the U-top scorer on the bench. But Johnson looked to sophomore Will Ramberg as his first player to check in on Sunday.
Freshmen Abdoulaye Thiam and Treyton Thompson gave the Gophers seven scholarship players available Sunday, making them eligible to play under the Big Ten’s new forfeiture and postponement rules during the pandemic.
Daniels opened the second half, tying his season record with his second field goal of the game, but Murray’s undisputed layup a few minutes later widened the margin to 51-31.
With the game threatening to reach insurmountable territory, Johnson didn’t have much more in store, instead playing the rarely used 7-footer Thompson, a native of Glenwood, Minnesota.
After becoming the only player available not to see the floor in the first half, Thompson scored his first field goal in a career of three points with 9:25 to play. Fellow Minnesotan Jamison Battle scored three three-pointers and Thompson scored again to bring it down to 72-65 with 3:52 left in the game.
Gophers fans rewarded the effort with thunderous cheers after the Hawkeyes had to orient themselves with a timeout.
The Gophers shot 57% in the second half, including 5-for-9 from a three-point range. They also managed to win the rebounding battle against Iowa 16-15.