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MINNEAPOLIS — Thought gave way to action, and the thought of a potential collapse of stunning proportions gave way to a star player taking that action.
A combination of suddenly excellent offensive execution and a befuddling zone defense brought Minnesota to within 74-71 with 1:30 left after the Iowa men’s basketball team led 58-35 with 14:48 remaining.
The Hawkeyes had the ball. The shot clock was dwindling, Tony Perkins was dribbling without anything happening, then he tossed a short bounce pass to Keegan Murray, who was 2 feet behind the 3-point line.
Murray, the nation’s leading scorer, did what scorers do. He shot without hesitation, over the reach of defender E.J. Stephens. It was a swish with 59 seconds left, and the Gophers didn’t score again in Iowa’s 81-71 win at Williams Arena.
The Hawkeyes improved to 13-4 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten. Minnesota is 10-5, 1-5.
“I feel like those are the best kind of shots to take, at the end of the shot clock,” said Murray, who had 25 points. “You really have no choice but to put it up, and I just felt confident. I knew it was going in right when it left my hand.”
It was a rare confident moment in a nerve-wracking second half for the Hawkeyes. They did about all an opponent needed to do in building that 23-point lead against a depleted Minnesota squad.
Before the game, the Gophers announced four players, including starting power forward Eric Curry and sixth-man Sean Sutherlin, and two assistant coaches would miss the game because of injuries and COVID-19. Curry injured an ankle last Wednesday in a last-second loss at Michigan State.
The Gophers had been going with a seven-man rotation before those losses. With just seven scholarship players available, they were undersized and outmanned. For 25 minutes, anyhow. Then Stephens had a 17-point second-half and Jamison Battle made three 3-pointers down the stretch.
Iowa, meanwhile, became stifled.
“We didn’t attack the zone well,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think that was fairly obvious. We’re usually pretty good at that. But we didn’t get it to the high post, we didn’t get it to the baseline, we didn’t drive the zone, stuff that you want to do.”
You could hear the hyenas clearing their throats to howl. If Iowa blew a 23-point lead against a short-handed team … but it didn’t. Murray wanted the ball, took the shot that mattered most, and the Gophers were contained at last.
“I feel like I just have to be a leader of this team,” Murray said.
“When he’s going, our team’s going,” said Iowa senior guard Jordan Bohannon, who made four free throws in the last 30 seconds to put the game out of reach.
“It’s been a lot of fun to see him grow as a player. He continues to show the nation how he’s one of the best players in the country.”
Filip Rebraca, who scored 23 points here for North Dakota in a loss to the Gophers last season, had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Iowa won without veteran Connor McCaffery, who had a back ailment. The Hawkeyes resume play Wednesday at Rutgers (10-6, 4-2), a 70-59 winner at Maryland Saturday.
“This league is brutal,” said McCaffery. “There’s just nobody anywhere that you can take lightly.”
Exhibit A was here Sunday. Minnesota wouldn’t cave, wouldn’t quit. Every Big Ten road win is a good one, even those that don’t look all that good.
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