We've been here before.
In fact, we've been in this exact same situation, against this exact same opponent, in this exact same venue before -- just a year ago. A year ago, on Christmas night, Iowa hacked up a big lead against Minnesota late, giving up 7 points in 37 seconds and then losing in OT. This year's debacle was more of a slow-motion collapse, with a 23-point lead slowly, inexorably bleeding out over the course of 11 minutes of game action, until Iowa led by just three points with a minute to go. Fortunately, this year's game had a much happier ending than last year's Christmas Day anti-miracle, thanks to one Keegan Murray.
Clinging to a three-point lead and with time winding down, Iowa got the ball to Keegan Murray behind the arc, with just four seconds left on the shot clock. Murray immediately unleashed a three-pointer from 25 feet out, with a Gopher defending running at him. The shot? Nothing but net:
That gave Iowa a crucial six-point lead with just under a minute to play and ensured that Minnesota would never have the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. Murray's heroics weren't done, though; immediately after nailing what turned out to be the game-icing three-pointer, he hustled back on defense -- and blocked a Minnesota layup attempt. And that was that; Jordan Bohannon went on to drain four free throws to set the final margin of victory, but it was Keegan Murray who clinched the victory for Iowa and made the big plays when things were spiraling out of control late in the game.
Thank God for Keegan Murray.
For a long stretch, it looked like Iowa's first Big Ten road win of the season would be fairly easy business. Minnesota, already playing with a short rotation this season, was further short-handed for this game due to some COVID-related absences. After a back-and-forth start for a few minutes, Iowa got the lead and pushed it out to 10 points with 8 minutes to go in the half. They kept it between 10-16 points for the remainder of the half, easily keeping the Gophers at bay. Iowa led 43-27 at the break thanks to 48% shooting (despite going just 2/9, 22%, from 3-point range). Iowa was dominating Minnesota in the paint (34-14), thrashing the Gophers on the glass (25-15 rebounding advantage, 10-2 on the offensive glass, leading to an 11-0 edge in second chance points), and converting 7 Gopher turnovers into 8 points. Keegan Murray was superb as usual, with 14 points on 7/11 shooting, but Filip Rebraca also played his best half in an Iowa uniform, exploding for 10 points (on 5/10 shooting), 9 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, and 2 steals in 14 minutes of action.
The second half began like the first ended, with Iowa steadily building their lead and keeping the Gophers at arm's length (and then some). Iowa's lead got as big as 23 (63-40 with 12 minutes to play after a Bohannon three-pointer) and it looked like we'd be treated to a rare sight: a cakewalk Big Ten road victory.
We did not get a cakewalk Big Ten road victory.
Instead, the Gophers went on a 31-11 run (!) over the next 11 minutes of game action, steadily eating away at Iowa's lead and turning what looked like a comfortable win into a genuine nail-biter. Iowa, who turned the ball over just twice in the first half, coughed the ball up six times in the second half. (Minnesota turned those turnovers into 11 points.) Iowa suddenly couldn't make a shot -- or even got a decent attempt on most possessions, looking thoroughly flummoxed by Minnesota's zone defense. Iowa's offense devolved into aimless passing around the perimeter, followed by a jacked-up shot late in the shot clock. Meanwhile, Minnesota suddenly couldn't miss on the other end. The Gophers ended up shooting 57% in the second half, and they had to be shooting north of 70% during their big run to get back into the game. E.J. Stephens, who had 7 points for Minnesota in the first half, went supernova in the second half, scoring 15 points on 6/9 shooting. Jamison Battle got hot from deep, making 4/6 three-pointers en route to 12 second half points. Even little-used backup big man Treyton Thompson got in on the action, chipping in 8 points on 3/3 shooting in his 11 minutes of court time in the second half.
Those 10-11 minutes in the second half were a total system failure for Iowa; the offense completely fizzled, the defense reverted to its worst matador self, and they couldn't even take care of the ball. Thank God they had a 23-point lead (which provided plenty of cushion for such a meltdown). Thank God they also had Keegan Murray, who made the clutch plays at the end of the game to ensure this ended up as a win and not one of Iowa's worst losses of the season. Despite the win, this game -- and especially this second half performance -- ought to give Fran & Co. plenty to try and work on at practice this week. The second half skid started when Fran turned to a reserve-heavy lineup, but even subbing the starters back in wasn't an immediate panacea.
The defensive intensity simply has to be better than it was in that stretch (and it's also probably a matter of getting the right personnel into the game; if you're getting roasted on the perimeter, it might be a good idea to get your weakest perimeter defender -- Bohannon -- off the court in favor of someone who can do more to slow down an opponent). And the Iowa offense also needs to work on figuring out better ways to attack zone defenses; they treated Minnesota's zone defense today like it was the Riddle of the Sphinx. One thing that would be a good idea in those situations? Making sure Keegan Murray touches the ball more often. There were several possessions during Iowa's meltdown late where Murray never touched the ball, which is flabbergasting. He's the best player on the team and one of the best players in the Big Ten (and the nation); get him the ball and give him a chance to do something.
Murray finished with 25 points (on 11/17 shooting), 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 steals -- in other words, yet another dazzling stat line for a player who's already had armfuls of stat lines like that this season. He's truly exceptional. Rebraca was a more than capable sidekick for Murray today, finishing with 12 points, 12 rebounds (six offensive), 2 blocks, and 2 steals in what was pretty easily his best game as a Hawkeye. He thrived against a Minnesota team that didn't have a lot in the way of size, talent, or experience down low, but hopefully a performance like this will also give him more confidence for the rest of the Big Ten season. Bohannon finished with 12 points as well, although it was another rough shooting performance for him (3/11 overall, 2/8 from 3-point range). Patrick McCaffery also finished in double figures, with 12 points (nine of which came in the second half) to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists. (He did have a pair of costly free throw misses late in the game, though Iowa as a team was a very pedestrian 10/16 from the free throw line in this game, which nearly cost them.) Joe Toussaint was the only Iowa starter not to score in double figures, but he still had 8 points and 7 rebounds and his energy provided some key sparks for Iowa during the game. This was not a game for the bench mob to play a big role; Tony Perkins and Kris Murray led the way for them with 5 points apiece, though Ahron Ulis had three assists in two rebounds for Iowa off the bench.
With the win, Iowa's record improves to 13-4 overall. They're also up to 3-3 in Big Ten play (and 3-1 after that 0-2 start against Purdue and Illinois), which puts them in 7th place in the league. Iowa's done a nice job of crawling out of that early hole in Big Ten play and while claiming a Top 4 spot in the Big Ten looks like a very tall order, they look like they might be able to contend for one of the spots in the next tier. That is, if they can avoid more near-collapses like they had in the second half today. Fortunately, that collapse didn't turn into a defeat today and Iowa can try to use it as the source of some very teachable moments; let's hope they learn the right lessons from those moments.
NEXT: Iowa stays on the road and heads out to New Jersey to take on Rutgers (10-6 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) on Wednesday, January 19 (7:30 PM CT, BTN).