The Gophers women’s basketball team is stuck in a difficult rut.
A first-half spark followed by a second-half swoon — a familiar tale with the Gophers of late — resulted in an 81-63 loss to Iowa in front of 5,439 at Williams Arena.
Up by eight at halftime, the Gophers were outscored 24-9 in the third quarter and 49-23 in the second half while losing their fourth consecutive Big Ten game, their second at home, with two road games looming.
“We felt good about our second quarter, and the first half in general,’’ first-year coach Lindsay Whalen said. “Third quarter, give them credit. They came out and went on a huge run, and we were a little back on our heels.’’
Iowa senior center Megan Gustafson — a native of northern Wisconsin — had a bus filled with family and friends come down to watch her dominate in the post. She made 16 of 22 shots, scored 34 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had three blocks as the Gophers tried one defense after another to try to slow her down.
Gustafson and guard Tania Davis (21 points) combined for 55 points on 24-for-34 shooting as Iowa shot 63 percent.
The 23rd-ranked Gophers (12-4, 1-4 Big Ten) used a zone scheme with aggressive perimeter play while forcing 10 second-quarter turnovers, turning a six-point deficit into an eight-point halftime lead.
But once No. 22 Iowa (12-4, 3-2) regrouped and stopped turning over the ball, the Gophers were in trouble. Iowa outscored the Gophers 24-9 in the third quarter — opening the period on an 18-3 run.
“We have to play the whole 40 minutes,’’ said Gophers guard Kenisha Bell, who led Minnesota with 22 points. “And we have to be ready to adjust on the fly when things aren’t going our way. Just play with intensity the whole game.’’
Destiny Pitts had 16 points. Taiye Bello had 12 rebounds and 12 points for the Gophers.
It appeared Monday’s loss was attributed more to the play of Gustafson and Davis and less to intensity.
Down six in the second quarter, Whalen went to a zone. The combination of pressure on the perimeter and physicality in the post put Iowa temporarily off its game.
Down five early in the second quarter, the Gophers exploited a suddenly turnover-prone Iowa offense to go on an 8-0 run to go up 29-26. After Davis scored, Pitts hit consecutive three-pointers as the Gophers built an eight-point lead by the end of the half. At that point the Gophers had an 18-0 edge on points off turnovers.
Minnesota was not able to recreate that defensive pressure the rest of the way; Iowa committed only four second-half turnovers, shooting 20-for-35 in the second half.
On the other end, after being forced out of man defense early, Iowa sat in a zone most of the rest of the way and the Gophers, who shot 36.9 percent overall and were 5-for-13 on three-pointers, couldn’t make them pay.
Except for the second quarter in which when Gustafson was held to two points, the Gophers were unable to deny her the ball in the post. They did not front her. And once she got the ball, she was hard to stop, making six of seven fourth-quarter shots.
“When you have a great player like that, they make you adjust,’’ Whalen said. “Zone was really good for us in the second, and we started it in the third, but then we had to go to man, and then kind of back and forth.’’
Nothing seemed to work.