On the eye-opening journey of Iowa's Luka Garza, from despondence to dominance in one month

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

By the 10th game of what he assumed would be a triumphant debut season as a major-college basketball player, Luka Garza found himself sitting on the Iowa bench wondering why he couldn’t even make a simple free throw.

The freshman center had lost his starting job that December Thursday in Ames. He entered a tightly contested rivalry game against Iowa State and promptly was summoned back to a spot next to coach Fran McCaffery and his Hawkeye teammates, scoring a mere two points in his seven minutes.

The biggest embarrassment for Garza was that he missed both of his free throws, leaving him 4 for his last 16.

Iowa freshman center Luka Garza gets behind Illinois forward Leron Black on Thursday for a second-half layup. Garza scored 19 points to help the Hawkeyes rally for a victory as he continues a string of stellar play.

Garza’s father, Frank, offered a timely reminder.

“Hey, you really belong here,” he counseled his son before dragging him onto the court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for some shooting practice with an odd twist.

Frank Garza, who played forward at Idaho in the 1980s, stationed Luka at the free-throw line and told him to close his eyes. He was not to reopen them until he made five free throws in a row.

“Once you do that, you go, 'Why am I missing when my eyes are open?'” Frank Garza said late Thursday inside the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois, after Luka’s brilliant play helped lead the Hawkeyes to a 104-97 overtime victory against the Illini. “I just had to prove to him that he has the mechanics. The truth about shooting is it’s a feeling, so if you’re thinking about it, you’re going to miss.”

Of all the remarkable things Garza has done over a nine-game stretch since bottoming out in Ames, the most startling is what occurred with 6 seconds left in regulation Thursday and Iowa trying to hold on to an 88-87 lead. Everyone knew Illinois would foul whoever caught the inbound pass. The Hawkeyes chose to put their fate in Garza’s hands.

Jan 11, 2018; Champaign, IL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Luka Garza (55) shoots while defended by Illinois Fighting Illini forward Kipper Nichols (2) during the second half at State Farm Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

A rookie who started out 16 of 39 from the free-throw line was about to reward that trust.

Garza made both of those free throws, which is why a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Illinois guard Trent Frazier only forced overtime, instead of sending Iowa to a sixth consecutive Big Ten Conference defeat, this one assuredly the most deflating of all.

Garza made all nine of his free throws against the Illini, and has made 40 of his last 49, an 81.6 percent clip that would rank third on the team.

He scored 17 of his 19 points after halftime, including a stretch of eight straight that turned the game in Iowa’s favor. He added 11 rebounds, seven of them on the offensive end, in a season-high 30 minutes. Garza’s seven offensive boards were two more than any Illinois player had in total.

From despondence to dominance in one short month.

“I think he’s now grown up,” said Frank Garza, who has left his home in the Washington, D.C., area to be at all but two of Luka’s games  far more than he originally intended. “So once I see that, then maybe I won’t have to attend as many. We’re here to ensure that he gets it done.”

Iowa's Luka Garza goes up for a shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.

The “we” includes Luka’s basketball-playing grandfather, James Halm, who lives in California but was at the Illinois game to witness Luka’s big game. And Luka’s mother, Sejla, a former professional player in her native Yugoslavia who plans to attend his next game, Wednesday at Rutgers. Garza’s extended family back in Europe makes sure to watch his games on their laptop computers.

They’ve seen a different Luka Garza lately. But also a more familiar one, the one who impressed college scouts during a standout high school career at Maret in D.C., where he was a four-star recruit.

The 6-foot-11 Garza is averaging 15.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in his last nine games. He is shooting 59.7 percent from the field. He regained his starting job three games ago and shows no signs of letting it go again.

“When I’m playing confident and aggressive, those are my best games,” Garza said Thursday. “When I was getting on the (free throw) line, there was no worry at all. My attitude was, it’s another two points. We were running plays for me at the end and that just felt good.”

Garza is prone to being hard on himself, his father said. In retrospect, Frank Garza thinks his son may have felt too much pressure to be a star right out of the gate at Iowa after he was the talk of the team’s four-game European tour in August. Garza averaged 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds while making 70 percent of his shots overseas.

Division I college basketball was a different experience altogether. After three solid games against low-level competition, Garza hit a wall. His next seven outings produced only 36 points and those 12 clanked free throws.

“He’s out there with these big men. He’d never seen that big of an athlete before. And then he was thinking too much, which was natural,” said Frank Garza, who decided then to stick around to be a comforting presence as his son made the difficult transition.

On Thursday, Garza showed a great feel for the game. Early on, the Illini worked hard to shut off passing lanes to him.

Garza’s solution?

“I had to go on the glass to get my touches,” he said of his knack for gathering rebounds off his teammates’ misses. “And then it started to open up.”

Garza’s benefit to the Hawkeyes is in providing a third scoring option as opposing teams face-guard Jordan Bohannon 30 feet from the basket and bracket Tyler Cook in the low post. Cook, who had 21 points against Illinois, approved.

“It opens up driving lanes for us,” Cook said. “That’s huge.”

By late in the second half, it was Garza doing the driving, including a whirling move that helped him cover 15 feet in two steps and finished with him leaning into a surprised defender to make a short basket.

“What I really like is he’s competing every possession,” Frank Garza said. “He was insistent on making plays, not just running plays.

“And that’s a huge maturation thing for him to realize, ‘Oh, I’m not just running around here. I’m here to score as well.’”

One point at a time, Garza is the one opening eyes now.