Luka Garza handles Penn State's punishing defense to push No. 17 Iowa to another win

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Don’t let anyone convince you that Luka Garza is a victim, a punching bag for opposing defenses, an innocent bystander who repeatedly gets mugged in the lane.

Iowa’s junior center stands 6-foot-11 and weighs 260 pounds. He can both absorb and dish out punishment.

And that brings us to Saturday’s latest heavyweight title fight disguised as a Big Ten Conference basketball game. Garza, as usual, was surrounded and pounded whenever he touched the ball. He missed 13 of the 16 shots he attempted in the first half, appearing to be in too much of a hurry at times when attacking Penn State big men John Harrar (6-9, 240) and Mike Watkins (6-9, 257).

“I’ve never missed that many shots in my life,” Garza declared afterward, “and it just was frustrating.”

Garza adjusted at halftime. He always finds a way this season.

He made 8 of 12 shots in the second half. He finished with 17 rebounds, seven of them on the offensive end. He blocked four Nittany Lion shots. He got so far into Watkins’ head that the senior picked up a technical foul in a moment of anger.

Garza got the final roar in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, throwing down a dunk to cap a 77-68 Hawkeye win.

It took him 28 shots, but Garza got his 25 points. It was his 14th consecutive Big Ten game with 20 or more to set a school record.

“I think over the course of my career, I’ve got to a point where I don’t let that bother me,” Garza said of his first-half inaccuracy. “I’m going to keep shooting the ball. I know I can score the ball no matter how many shots it takes. I’m going to be aggressive. I need to be that way for our team.”

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) dunks during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game against Penn State, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Garza had nothing but praise for Watkins, who sat on the Penn State bench for the final 4 minutes and 8 seconds of the game after his tirade. He called Watkins “a freaky athlete.” He understood why Watkins’ temper flared.

“As a big man, I know playing against me would be hard just because of how I run the floor and post up every single time down. I don’t give anybody a break, and I think when guys do that to me, it wears me out,” Garza said. “At some points there’s just nothing you can do, and I think it’s definitely frustrating to guys.”

Penn State coach Pat Chambers felt his team defended Garza well.

“We wanted to mix things up on him,” Chambers said. “We were trying to keep him off-balance.”

It worked for a half.

There was nothing pretty about the latest win for No. 17 Iowa (20-9, 11-7 Big Ten). There was no finesse in Garza’s game, just a determination to be the toughest player on the court.

And he was.

Playing in the paint in the Big Ten is not for the faint of heart. Garza, who never shrinks from a fight, handles it better than anyone.

“When they put three or four guys around me, I’m definitely absorbing a lot of contact,” he said, “but I’m going through people and trying to finish over them.”

The victory over No. 14 Penn State (21-8, 11-7) avenged an 89-86 loss on Jan. 4. More importantly, it gave the Hawkeyes a seventh win over a ranked opponent this season and bolstered their case for a top-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

CJ Fredrick helps fuel a resurgent Iowa defensive effort

The Hawkeyes welcomed shooting guard CJ Fredrick back to the starting lineup. The freshman had missed the previous three games with a sprained ankle.

There was one early scare, when Fredrick fell the court while closing out to try to contest a Myles Dread 3-point attempt. He stayed down for a second, but got up no worse for the wear.

Fredrick played 32 minutes, with 10 points and three assists.

But it was his presence on defense that benefited Iowa the most. It allowed Iowa coach Fran McCaffery to go back to an eight-man rotation. It gave him an extra guard to throw at a Penn State team that often puts four of them on the court at once.

Iowa led just 35-34 at halftime but opened the second half with a 20-8 burst that practically put things out of reach for the Nittany Lions. Penn State was just 2-for-11 from the field in that stretch.

“We didn’t play our best in the first half and we were still up one, so we wanted to create some separation, kind of set the tone of how the second half was going to go,” Fredrick said. “And coach made an emphasis on getting back in transition. They were kind of running it up our backs in the first half and we wanted to make them play in the halfcourt. We were running back and we were finding shooters, and we were walling off (Penn State star) Lamar Stevens in transition.”

That made all the difference. Fredrick was right in the middle of it.

“I think you saw I was fresh,” he said. “I just had a little bounce like I usually have.”

McCaffery was happy to have him back. Fredrick’s return moves senior Ryan Kriener back to the bench, where he is an important backup at the post positions. He had eight points and five rebounds in 17 minutes.

Iowa guard CJ Fredrick (5) makes a 3-point basket during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game against Penn State, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

“I think another body really is helpful. We were rotating seven,” McCaffery said. “It’s like we had seven starters. Just kind of rotate them and try to keep five fresh bodies out there, not worry about position.

“And I think that’s good for building confidence and versatility. But having that extra body give you a little more flexibility on how you want to sub, how you want to play, what kind of lineup you want on the floor.”

That’s necessary as the Hawkeyes head in to tournament play. This is a team that can make a deep run with a healthy core of eight players.

Toussaint provides positive energy and a personal record for assists

Iowa freshman point guard Joe Toussaint was the best player on the court in the opening minutes Saturday. And he didn’t have to score a point.

He surprised Harrar in the post by blazing in from behind to steal the ball. That led to a Joe Wieskamp 3-pointer. Toussaint assisted on Iowa’s next basket, a 3-pointer by Garza. And the next, a 3 by Fredrick. He stepped in to take a charge from Penn State’s Jamari Wheeler. He stole a Lamar Stevens pass and turned that into a Kriener layup.

Toussaint finished with two points, but had a career-high eight assists. And he needed only 16 minutes to get them. It was the kind of outing Iowa needs from the rookie, who is usually the fastest player on the court but also can be the fastest to get benched if McCaffery doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“Today just wasn’t a scoring night. Today was dish the ball, play defense, rebound,” Toussaint said.

“I just came out, got two assists early, got a steal early and I was just feeling good.”

Iowa guard Joe Toussaint (1) makes a layup as Penn State's Curtis Jones Jr. (4) defends during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Toussaint is also a pesky defender, of particular value against teams like the Nittany Lions that like to push the pace.

“He never gets tired. That helps,” McCaffery said of Toussaint’s defense. “He’s unbelievably quick and powerful. So he’ll fight through screens.”

Winning basketball games in March almost always requires brilliant play at the point guard spot. An emerging Toussaint would greatly help Iowa’s chances in that regard.

Iowa next hosts Purdue on Tuesday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines to make sure you never miss a moment.