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Souhan: Gophers promising season gets cold hit of reality in loss to Iowa

When it's below zero on campus, why would the Gophers insist on leaving the back door open at the Barn?

It should have been a nice night to play a little indoor basketball, and the Gophers men's team produced a promising start.

Point guard Elijah Hawkins, whose leadership and floor game have been so valuable in his first season for Minnesota, led a pressing, attacking defense that gave the Gophers leads of 10-1 and 14-3.

This is what fans braved the subzero temperatures to see at Williams Arena: grit, toughness and a chance to take advantage of a seemingly beatable Iowa team as coach Ben Johnson's third season at Minnesota trended toward promising.

A few minutes later, Gophers assistant Dave Thorson was screaming at the players during a timeout, having watched them get fooled by yet another Iowa backdoor cut en route to another trap-door loss, 86-77.

"Defensively, we just had detailed breakdowns," Johnson said. "Which you can't have. ... I think it was just more about: We've got to find a way to dig deep and be more of who we are. That goes back to stretches where we lose our way and our identity."

The Gophers' identity seemed to reside on the defensive end, but on Monday night, they appeared to be using a fake ID.

They entered the game at 3-2 in the conference, good for a tie for fourth place in the Big Ten standings. The Hawkeyes were 2-3 and had yet to win on the road.

After that promising start, Iowa began solving the press and activating its half-court offense, and the Gophers suddenly seemed lost. The Hawkeyes scored repeatedly on back cuts and simply by having their best shooters get to their favorite spots unimpeded.

The result: Iowa eased to a victory and the Gophers blew an opportunity to make an impression and a move in the standings.

Thorson's message was loud but largely unheeded.

"He was telling us, 'This isn't us,' " Gophers star forward Dawson Garcia said. "He was right. I appreciate the passion he brings every day.''

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This wasn't necessarily a fatal loss, but it felt like more than a mere paper cut. If this is going to be the season in which Johnson's program breaks through, the Gophers — now 12-5 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten — are going to need to beat unranked teams at home, at a minimum.

They lost because of poor defense and the inability to compensate for poor defense with quality offense. The Gophers finished the game with five made three-pointers on 29 attempts. They made just 67% of their free-throw tries, with players other than Garcia combining to go just 4-for-9.

And their inability to solve Iowa's occasional press contributed to them committing 12 turnovers.

"In the first half, we got off to a good start, and then we kind of got caught up in a style that, you know, probably benefits [the Hawkeyes] a little bit more," Johnson said. "And we got in the habit of taking some quick ones."

Offensively, the Gophers relied heavily on Garcia, who scored 30 points by working in and around the paint but got little help.

Freshman Cam Christie gave the Gophers a burst early in the second half but didn't play much down the stretch, when his shooting might have made a difference. "I thought the group we had out there was solid, that's all," Johnson said.

After taking that 14-3 lead, the Gophers were outscored 36-18 the rest of the half and 83-63 the rest of the game.

"When you're up against it and things aren't going your way, you've got to be able to fall back on something," Johnson said. "We've got to remind them that when we do what we do, it's good enough."

The Gophers fans who began filing out with less than two minutes remaining in the game missed Garcia converting a three-point play and making a spinning layup to reach 30 points.

Now the Gophers have lost two straight. Their next game is at Michigan State, and their next home game is against No. 11 Wisconsin.

They'll need to beat at least one good team and established program to remain at .500 in the Big Ten and keep a little optimism simmering in The Barn.