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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery explains why he benched his starters and what was wrong with the Hawkeye defense against Minnesota. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — By the opening minutes of the second half Sunday, even Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was tired of watching his starting unit get worked over by Minnesota.

They had allowed 65 points in 24 minutes, failing to execute in man-to-man, zone or the trapping press the Hawkeyes sometimes use.

McCaffery pulled all five of them out of the game, a clear signal that he was searching for anybody willing to commit to playing defense against a Gophers team that was scoring with stunning ease.

“I was trying something. What we were doing before was not working. So you can change the offense, you can change the defense, or you can change the personnel,” McCaffery said.

No. 21 Iowa never did find the solution, although things got better late. Minnesota hung on for a 92-87 victory before an enthusiastic crowd announced at 11,582 at Williams Arena.

The Hawkeyes dropped a second consecutive game after winning five straight.

They trailed by as many as 16 points and things looked bleak. But an 11-0 run got Iowa within four points late with a chance to make it a one-possession game. Instead, Tyler Cook, the Hawkeyes' leading scorer, made two crucial mistakes.

First, he shot an airball on the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity. Next, Cook grabbed a defensive rebound and headed determinedly upcourt, only to lose the ball with 54 seconds remaining for his fifth turnover of the game.

The Hawkeyes never again got that close.

“Typically, I’m OK with him going coast to coast,” McCaffery said of his junior forward. “That was obviously not a real good decision under the circumstances. He’s just got to learn from that.”

Cook wasn’t second-guessing himself.

“Just making plays I always make. I’m in transition and try to get to the paint,” he said. “I mishandled it a little bit.”

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Iowa forward Tyler Cook explains why he tried to dribble downcourt late against Minnesota, and his confidence in his ball-handling skills in general. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

The Hawkeyes (16-5, 5-5 Big Ten Conference) allowed a season-worst 55 points to Minnesota (15-5, 5-4) in the opening half. The Gophers, who average 73 points a game and were coming off a 57-point outing in a loss at Michigan, made 21 of 32 field goals (65.6 percent). Iowa had surrendered 51 points to Michigan State in the second half of its home loss Thursday.

This was a troubling trend, and the players talked about it at halftime. It was too reminiscent of the Hawkeyes’ struggles a year ago, when they were the worst defensive team in the Big Ten and foundered to a 4-14 regular season.

“We were just trying to lock in a little bit. It was a little bit too late,” Iowa center Luka Garza said of the halftime message.

That message was reinforced 4 minutes into the second half, when Garza and his cohorts were pulled to the bench and replaced by Nicholas Baer, Maishe Dailey, Ryan Kriener, Connor McCaffery and Riley Till. That group is short on scoring ability, but showed more effort and kept the deficit to 13 points.

The starters got the message Fran McCaffery so clearly intended.

“We came in there and fought. But he shouldn’t have to do that,” Garza said of the moment the starters returned.

This time, they sparked a run. Minnesota helped matters by missing seven of eight free throws in one stretch, causing the crowd to start murmuring in apprehension.

Garza scored 25 points, including a 3-pointer to cut the Minnesota lead to 81-76 with 3 minutes, 32 seconds remaining.

Isaiah Moss added 23 points. Cook finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.

None of that was enough to overcome that first-half defense, though. It was the most points the Gophers have scored in a Big Ten game this season.

“It’s just upsetting because that’s a team we know we’re better than,” Garza said.

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Iowa's two best 3-point shooters, Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp, were non-factors for much of the game. Wieskamp made three late free throws; Bohannon's lone basket was a layup in the waning seconds that the Gophers allowed him to take.

“(The Gophers) did a good job getting up into them. We’ve got to do a better job screening, if teams are going to play them that way,” McCaffery said. “We need them to take and make shots.”

And a much better defensive effort from the get-go.

“This team’s quick. They move the ball,” McCaffery said of Minnesota. “So you’ve got to be together. There’s got to be some ball pressure. You’ve got to front the post. You’ve got to get over from the weak side and you’ve got to fight them on the glass. … And you’ve got to do that to get the ball back. And if there’s one breakdown in any of that, as the possession goes on, they’re going to score.

“They had 55 points in the first half. That’s too many.”

It was at least five points too many for the Hawkeyes on Sunday.

Iowa next hosts Michigan at 6 p.m. Friday.

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