MINNEAPOLIS — It’s an old, familiar song, but it hits harder this season when so much is expected.
Defense did in the Iowa men’s basketball team Friday night in its 102-95 overtime loss to Minnesota. Marcus Carr, a Gopher guard having a spectacular start to his junior season by averaging 24.6 points, made two 3-pointers in the final 31 seconds of regulation that set up a barrage of treys in the overtime by teammate Brandon Johnson.
Leading by three points late in the second half, Iowa could have chosen to foul the Gophers rather than give them a 3-point shot. It’s become a familiar basketball argument with lobbyists for both sides, whether to foul when you’re up by three points late and the other team is seeking a game-tying shot.
But Carr got the shot and made it with 5.7 seconds left. It wasn’t an easy shot, launched over Iowa’s Joe Toussaint. But when you’re averaging almost 25 points a game, you make shots.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) December 26, 2020
Minnesota made 17 treys. Four came from graduate transfer Johnson in the overtime. Everyone inside and outside the Iowa team agreed he was left too open and too often.
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“We’ve got to be tougher, we’ve got to be more connected,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said after the game. “We’ve got to be ready at the start. A lot of things. We just have to be better. We weren’t very good tonight.
“Our defense tonight was unacceptable.”
OK, so recognizing you have a problem is the first step toward doing something about it. It’s the same problem, though, that has plagued the program before this season.
Using last season as an example isn’t altogether fair given the short roster Iowa played with in the conference season because of injuries and illness. That team may have maxed out in going 11-9 in the Big Ten. It did, however, allow 75 points per game in league play. League co-champions Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin allowed 66.4, 65.4 and 63.9 points per game, respectively.
When Iowa’s offense is good as it often is — it doesn’t have to be great to win, just good — it can overcome defensive shortcomings. But when it only gets five fast-break points and shoots 37.2 percent the way it did Friday, it usually doesn’t have the kind of defense to overcome it, and you’re going to have offensive nights like that in the Big Ten against physical defenses with quick, capable guards.
Minnesota played that kind of defense. So will other teams on Iowa’s schedule.
Now, if the Hawkeyes had made four of their six free throws in the final 37 seconds of the second half instead of the three they did make, this essay is about how the Hawkeyes bounced back from a 12-point first-half deficit to get a road win when they weren’t at their best offensively.
Such are the margins in this league, and such is the slim difference between being 2-0 and 1-1.
Adding to the Hawkeyes’ frustration of losing after letting a 7-point lead evaporate in the final 44 seconds is that they had a 55-38 rebounding advantage and 27 offensive rebounds. Luka Garza had 11 offensive boards by himself.
Rarely do you see a team record rebounding numbers like that and lose.
But there was Johnson, swishing 3-pointers. He hadn’t made one in any of Minnesota’s previous three games. He’d never made more than three in any of his previous 99 college games.
He made eight this night in nine tries, tying the school record for 3s in a game. He was 4 of 4 from deep in the OT, and you knew the ball was going in every time it left his hands. His teammates mobbed him after the game.
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Under normal circumstances, the crowd in The Barn would have been delirious with the finish and hoarse from yelling at all the ups and downs in the game between the two rivals. Instead, the stands were empty. Totally empty. Not even family members of players are allowed at games here, under state restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
It made for an even stranger and sadder atmosphere than at, say, Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There, at least family members of the Hawkeyes and their opponents can spread out and attend games.
TV doesn’t begin to capture how unnatural these games feel, and how it illustrates why they’re being played. You can attach all the significance and meaning to it you want, but ultimately it’s just a live TV show without a live audience, and the Big Ten sold eight hours of programming on Christmas.
“Not to be political,” Zach Bohannon texted me Thursday, “but make sure when you write your game story that if playing on Christmas Day without any family during a pandemic doesn’t qualify as ‘essential workers,’ then I don’t know what does!”
Zach hadn’t missed any of his brother Jordan’s first 120 games at Iowa, but Minnesota wouldn’t let him make it 121. He’ll drive to Rutgers and Maryland from Cedar Rapids in the first week of 2021 if they’ll let him attend the Hawkeyes’ games there.
Frank Garza, Luka’s father, didn’t mince words this week when asked about not being able to attend his son’s game in Minnesota.
“In the history of humankind,” Frank said, “separating families has proved to be the most unjust and cruel act one can do to another. In this instance, with a simple use of logic and common sense planning; giant arenas, masks, distancing, and temperature checks illuminates reasonable risk. The callous and arbitrary choice of requiring young men to play on Christmas Day without their families is as unjust and capricious as one can be.”
Here’s how weird things are: As I approached Williams Arena Friday — a small number of media people covered the game in person — a large wild turkey ran past me and walked up to the arena. It peered into a picture window and looked inside for several moments.
It, too, was denied entrance. Too bad. It would have made great TV.
We move on. Presumably, there’s a lot of season left.
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