Late in the first half Sunday, Gophers basketball faithful watched in frustration as Iowa's Filip Rebraca beat his chest and pointed to the Williams Arena court as if his team owned the place after a steal and emphatic dunk.
Rebraca, a North Dakota transfer, was playing in his first border battle, but he seemed to have a sense early, as fans witnessed, that this would probably not be a competitive rivalry game.
First-year coach Ben Johnson's Gophers trailed by as many as 23 points — down two assistants and four players due to injuries, illness and COVID-19 protocols — but they clawed back to make it interesting in an 81-71 loss to the Hawkeyes in front of announced crowd of 10,925.
The Gophers (10-5, 1-5 Big Ten), who went on a 31-11 run in the second half, announced before the game that players Eric Curry, Sean Sutherlin, Danny Ogele and Joey Kern would not play.
"There was going to be something that was going to allow us to make it a game," Johnson told his players during shootaround. "That was kind of their sole focus. They're a determined group. I think they've done a good job of finding ways to compete."
After trailing 63-40 with just under 12 minutes left, the Gophers went to a 2-3 zone defense and found confidence offensively to eventually pull within 74-71 with 1:29 to play after Jamison Battle's fourth three-pointer.
"Going on a run and hearing the Barn get loud is something that we've been waiting for this whole season," said Battle, who finished with 20 points.
It actually seemed as if the depleted Gophers might pull off the upset, but Keegan Murray ended a near 5½-minute Iowa scoring drought with a three. The Hawkeyes, who finished the game on a 7-0 run, got 25 points from Murray, the nation's leading scorer.
"Being undermanned, Coach told us everybody needed to be aggressive," said E.J. Stephens, who led the Gophers with a season-high 22 points. "After the Michigan State game I thought I did a good job of getting downhill and making plays. So that's something I want to continue to build on this year."
The U's biggest missing piece was Curry. The starting senior center and captain was recovering from an ankle injury suffered in Wednesday's 71-69 loss at Michigan State.
Starting in Curry's place was senior transfer Charlie Daniels, who entered the game averaging just 1.7 points in 10.6 minutes this season and wasn't 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 Murray, but they had a significant edge in points in the paint (34-14) and rebounds (25-15, including 10 offensive) in the first half to lead 43-27 at halftime.
Sutherlin, the U's top scorer off the bench, missed his second game this season. But freshmen Abdoulaye Thiam and Treyton Thompson gave the Gophers seven scholarship players available Sunday. That made them eligible to play under the Big Ten's new forfeit and postponement rules during the pandemic.
Daniels opened the second half tying his season high with his second field goal of the game, but Jordan Bohannon's three-pointer made it a 23-point lead for the second time at the 11:54 mark.
With the game threatening to reach insurmountable territory, Johnson didn't have much more up his sleeve than a zone defense and playing rarely used 7-footer Thompson, a Glenwood, Minn., native.
The Gophers shot 57% in the second half, including 5-for-9 from three-point range. They also managed to win the rebounding battle 16-15 against Iowa after halftime.
The same Minnesota fans bracing for a blowout earlier rewarded their team's effort against tough odds with resounding cheers in the second half, even when the Hawkeyes finally got their bearings in the final minute to pull away.
"We knew if the game got into the 80s it was going to be tough," Johnson said. "I thought maybe our [zone] would slow them down. … It's the chess game, but it ended up working out for us. To my surprise it froze them a little bit and gave us some energy."