Leistikow: In another Hawkeye defeat, Luka Garza demonstrates hustle that's required
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Luka Garza ran the length of the Crisler Center’s 94-foot basketball floor, charged through the free-throw lane, accepted a pass from Iowa teammate Ryan Kriener and slammed home a two-handed dunk.
It was a nice play. But what made it somewhat remarkable Wednesday night is that it came with 3 seconds left in another lopsided Hawkeye road loss — 74-59 at Michigan in front of 10,173 fans.
The hustle Garza showed there stuck out for two reasons.
No. 1, here was a guy who is playing hard at the end of a game that had long been decided.
No. 2, it showed the type of relentless play Iowa needs from all five guys on the floor, all the time.
“I wasn’t the most blessed athletically,” the 6-foot-11 freshman from Washington, D.C., said in a moment of self-deprecation after he had scored a game-high 22 points — his best in a Big Ten Conference game — on 10 of 16 shooting. “So every time I step on the court, I go as hard as I can.
“We’re all blessed to be here and play this sport at this level. So why not take advantage of every opportunity and go as hard as you can?”
Any coach would love that type of approach. Fran McCaffery certainly does.
Afterward, I asked the eighth-year Iowa coach a four-word question.
Does Garza ever loaf?
“Never,” McCaffery said. “He has that rare ability. He never takes a possession off. He’s going hard in walk-throughs. That’s just how he’s wired."
Even though Iowa was on the verge of being blown out at halftime, down 13, Garza tried his best to bring the Hawkeyes back. He scored Iowa’s first eight points of the second half, all before the first media timeout.
He even picked up his third foul in the middle of that spurt, which normally would've had McCaffery pulling Garza to the bench.
Not on this night, though. McCaffery needed Garza's energy and game.
“He’s an incredible worker,” McCaffery said. “I had to make a decision (when) he got his third in the second half. I said … ‘I’m sticking with you.’
“He gives you a chance, because he can really score the ball. And he’s a big presence defensively. He rebounds in traffic. I was proud of him tonight.”
Chances — hopeful moments, really — have been hard to come by for Iowa on the Big Ten road this winter. It's now 1-7 in those games, with all seven losses decided by at least 13 points.
But after two Jordan Bohannon shots in the lane Wednesday, hope briefly emerged. Iowa had trimmed Michigan’s advantage to 46-38.
Then, the usual.
Four sizzling Michigan 3-pointers in a matter of 2½ minutes, and Iowa's shot at victory was flash-fried.
“When we get off to those runs, we’ve got to keep up that intensity,” Garza said. “I think we failed to do that.”
This column isn’t to contend that Iowa players aren’t playing hard.
They say they are. I believe they think they are.
“I think we’re right there. I think we’re playing hard,” said junior Nicholas Baer, who with nine points in his last four games has struggled to return to the spark-plug form that earned him Big Ten's Sixth Man award last year. "I think there’s a few things where we can play a little bit smarter. On the whole, we’re working hard. We’re working hard in practice. We’re having good practices.”
Anyone who has watched Iowa basketball this month has seen opponents getting uncontested lanes to the basket for two easy points. A hard, not dirty, foul now and then would be nice to see.
After Iowa had cut it to 49-40 Wednesday, there was a long rebound opportunity from a missed 3-pointer by Michigan’s Jordan Poole. Bohannon jumped and got a hand on the ball. But not one Hawkeye dove or scrambled for the ensuing loose ball. A Michigan player easily scooped up the rebound as if it were a lazy ground-ball to second base.
Not long after, Garza fumbled a ball in Iowa's half-court offense. He was the only Hawkeye to dive to try to retrieve it. Michigan came away with the ball for one of its season-high 13 steals.
That's a hustle stat.
Look, this Iowa team is now 12-16 overall — guaranteed to finish below .500 in the regular season for the first time since Year 1 of the McCaffery era, 2010-11 — and 3-12 in the Big Ten. While not excusable, it’s understandable that a disappointed team of mostly 19- and 20-year-olds would experience emotional in-game letdowns.
What’s important is that Iowa players see the kind of all-out effort Garza is giving and try to emulate that in what they (and fans) hope is a more promising 2018-19 campaign.
“Luka’s a great example of someone who plays with so much emotion,” Baer said.
Garza benefited from some extra space with Tyler Cook (10 points, eight rebounds) getting maximum Michigan attention.
“That’s just the guy he is,” Cook said of Garza’s hustle. “He’s always been that way since the day I’ve met him. I’m happy he was able to knock down some shots, get some open looks and capitalize on the opportunities he got.”
Iowa took a 7-0 lead Wednesday, with Garza scoring the first four points of the game.
He also defiantly scored the meaningless last two.
“I feel like I turned the ball over a little bit too much," he said (and he did, with four of Iowa's 16 turnovers). "But I came out and I tried to play more confident, aggressive and go when I caught the ball. Make something happen and not be a spectator on offense."
Another good lesson from the energetic freshman.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.