Ben Johnson watched his Gophers basketball team pull off the improbable last season. They beat Rutgers shorthanded for his first Big Ten home victory with the conference-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. A cast of unlikely contributors and Jamison Battle's 20 points weren't enough, though, in a 61-57 loss against Indiana in front of an announced crowd of 9,276 at Williams Arena.
"The thing I'm most proud of is their fight, their toughness and their grit," Johnson said. "I think the will they had to compete and give themselves a chance was well done by them."
Battle's fourth three-pointer sent the Barn into an uproar with his team taking a late 55-54 lead with 6 minutes, 21 seconds to play.
The Gophers (7-12, 1-8) were the worst free-throw shooting team in college basketball (59.3%) entering the game, but they got two free throws from Taurus Samuels to extend their lead to 57-54 with 3:20 remaining. The upset seemed within reach.
But Trayce Jackson-Davis, who finished with 25 points and 21 rebounds, made the go-ahead basket for a 59-57 lead on an offensive rebound on Race Thompson's missed second free throw with 43 seconds left. And the Gophers missed their last 11 shots.
"You just have to fight and bring it every game, regardless of who is out there," Battle said. "If there's a few [players] down, you're still going to go out there with your head held high and you're going to give your best effort."
Garcia missed the game because of a bone bruise on his right foot suffered late in Sunday's 60-56 loss at Michigan. Freshmen Pharrel Payne (concussion protocol), who also hurt himself vs. Michigan, and Braeden Carrington (stress reaction) were in street clothes on the bench.
The Gophers still had four healthy starters, including All-Big Ten preseason forward Battle, who dealt with a lingering back injury when he had his first career scoreless game in last week's 61-39 loss vs. Purdue at home. The same player who had missed the first four games of the season after foot surgery looked healthier just in time Wednesday.
Battle opened the game with a block on Jackson-Davis and five consecutive points to set the tone early. All seven Gophers players able to play scored in the first half, including former walk-on Will Ramberg and freshman Jaden Henley combining for nine of their 11 points in the first half.
The only new starter was 7-foot sophomore Treyton Thompson, who started seven games earlier this season. That experience helped him be ready to contribute Wednesday, finishing with eight points and eight rebounds in 37 minutes.
Thompson's dunk on a pass from Ta'Lon Cooper gave the Gophers a five-point lead midway through the first half before a lengthy scoring drought resulted in a 33-30 halftime deficit.
The absence of Payne and Garcia meant 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 coach Mike Woodson out to recover from COVID-19, but Jackson-Davis was his dominant self with 16 second-half points.
Henley's twisting layup plus the foul sparked a 10-2 run that was capped by Battle's third three for a 50-49 lead with just under nine minutes left. The Hoosiers, though, kept finding ways to attack the 2-3 zone to remain close before overtaking the Gophers in the final minute.
After losses 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 Wednesday.
Not knowing which players will be ready to return Saturday at Northwestern, Johnson was satisfied if he gets a similar effort.
"I think we battled," he said. "To be able to do that, knowing guys don't have subs and still be aggressive, my hat goes off to our guys."