With 5:25 remaining, Minnesota found itself in position to secure a much-needed victory in front of a sold-out home crowd. Instead, a late offensive slump proved costly as victory slipped away from the Gophers.
Heading into the game, all eyes were on the matchup at center between the Big Ten's two leading scorers, sophomore Daniel Oturu and Iowa junior Luka Garza. Those two ultimately led the game in scoring, but it was Garza's team that made the plays when it needed to as Minnesota (12-12, 6-8 Big Ten) fell 58-55 to No. 21 Iowa (18-8, 9-6 Big Ten).
"They made some big plays at the end there," said head coach Richard Pitino. "Obviously, our guys did not down the end of the stretch. Too many turnovers, too many mental lapses when we needed to step up there."
To open the game, Iowa ran its offense through Garza, feeding him in the paint as he scored the game's first eight points. In response, Minnesota switched Oturu on to Garza in an attempt to slow him down as the Gophers quickly fell behind 10-2.
"Garza is so dominant," Pitino said. "Whenever you have Garza on the court he's going to give you a chance."
Although Minnesota managed to prevent Iowa from pulling further ahead, they still needed a spark trailing 21-14 with 7:27 to go in the half. That opportunity came when Garza picked up his second personal foul with 5:23 remaining in the first half, sending him to the bench for the remainder of the half.
Without Garza, Iowa struggled to score and momentum shifted to the Gophers. In the final 6:12 of the half, Minnesota scored 14 consecutive points as a part of a 16-5 run to head into intermission with a 5-point lead.
With 14:38 remaining, an Oturu jumper gave Minnesota its largest lead of the game, 41-33. A 7-0 Iowa run tightened the contests before redshirt sophomore Marcus Carr ended a four minute scoreless drought with a 3-pointer.
Back within striking distance, Iowa tied the game at 47-47 before a 45-second flurry of scoring restored Minnesota's eight-point advantage. The quick 8-0 run was powered by consecutive threes from sophomore Gabe Kalscheur and redshirt junior Payton Willis.
"We were happy, we were encouraging each other," Kalscheur said. "Shots were falling and we had momentum."
The burst of offense then disappeared as suddenly as it came. The Gophers did not score another point for the remaining 5:25, turning the ball over five times. Iowa ended the game on an 11-0 run, taking their first lead of the half from the free throw line with 1:15 to play. With 3.8 seconds left, Oturu had a chance to tie the game at the line, but the front-end of his one-and-one rattled out, sinking Minnesota's chances.
"It wasn't on [Oturu] at all," Carr said. "I know sometimes it comes down to one shot, one free throw. But at the end of the day, we shouldn't have been in that position."
Oturu did finish as the Gophers' leading scorer with 15 points. Kalscheur and Carr also scored in double-digits with 12 and 10 points respectively. Carr also had eight rebounds and six assists.
For Iowa, Garza scored a game-high 24 points despite playing only 28 minutes while battling foul trouble. Senior Ryan Kriener was the only other Hawkeye in double digits, scoring 10 points.
Now down to the season's final six games, Minnesota must rebound with a victory to remain in contention for the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers' next chance to do so will come at home on Wednesday, Feb. 19 against Indiana.
"There was some devastation," Pitino said. "And that's good, you have to hate losing. But tomorrow we get back to work, we still have six regular season games and we're back in our building on Wednesday."