Ben Johnson saw his Gophers basketball team pull off the unlikely past season. They beat shorthanded Rutgers for its first Big Ten home win with the conference’s minimum seven scholarship players.
A year later, the Gophers were in a similar situation Wednesday night with leading scorer Dawson Garcia and two key reserves sidelined with injury. A cast of unlikely contributors and Jamison Battle’s 20 points weren’t enough in a 61-57 loss to Indiana at Williams Arena.
Battle’s fourth three-point shot sent the Barn into an uproar, with his side taking a late 55-54 lead. The same player who missed the first four games of the season after foot surgery looked healthy just in time.
The Gophers (7-12, 1-8) were the worst free throw shooting team in college basketball (59.3%) entering the night, but they got two free throws from Taurus Samuels to extend it at a 57-54 advantage. The surprise seemed at hand.
But Trayce Jackson-Davis, who finished with 25 points and 21 rebounds, made it 59-57 on an offensive rebound on Race Thompson’s second missed free throw with 43 seconds left.
The Gophers missed their last 11 shots of the game. But Garcia, who is averaging 14.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, missed his season opener with a right foot bruise late in Sunday’s 60-56 loss to Michigan. Freshmen Pharrel Payne (concussion protocol) and Braeden Carrington (stress response), who are averaging 13.4 points and 8.6 rebounds, were also in street clothes on the bench.
The Gophers still had four healthy starters left, including preseason All-Big Ten forward Battle, who missed last season’s win over Rutgers due to illness. Battle had struggled with a lingering back injury, which resulted in his first career scoreless game in last week’s 61-39 loss to Purdue at home.
On Wednesday, Battle opened the game with a block on Jackson-Davis and five straight points to set the tone for the Gophers early on. All seven playable players scored in the first half, including former walker Will Ramberg and rookie Jaden Henley combining for nine of their 11 first-half points.
The only new starter against the Hoosiers was 7-footer Treyton Thompson, who was also cast in that role last season when he posted a career-high 10 points against Rutgers in his first career start. His experience with seven starts earlier this season helped him be ready to contribute on Wednesday. He finished with eight points and eight rebounds.
Thompson’s dunk off a pass from Ta’Lon Cooper gave the Gophers a five-point lead midway through the first half before a lengthy drought that resulted in a 33-30 halftime deficit.
The absence of Payne and Garcia meant that Thompson and freshman Joshua Ola-Joseph faced the dubious task of trying to limit Indiana’s All-America Jackson-Davis, who entered the game. with 66 points and 23 rebounds combined in wins over Michigan State and Illinois.
The Hoosiers (14-6, 5-4) were dealing with their own health issues with head coach Mike Woodson on Wednesday recovering from COVID-19, but Jackson-Davis was dominant himself.
Besides Garcia and Payne out Wednesday, Carrington missed his third straight game with a leg injury. The Gophers surpassed the all-time low point total in the Jan. 19 loss to Purdue when Battle landed a jumper to make it 45-40 with 13 minutes left.
After losing to Illinois and Purdue by a combined 40 points in back-to-back home games, the Gophers played competitive basketball again to the delight of fans on Wednesday.
Henley’s crooked layup plus foul sparked a 10-2 run for the Gophers that was capped by Battle’s third three-pointer of the game for a 50-49 lead, but the Hoosiers took their best shot and responded again and again.
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