By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa sophomore center Luka Garza walked into the interview room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and found a spot near a wall in the back where he then turned to face the media.
A difficult night on Tuesday was about to become more difficult for Garza as reporters quickly gathered around him to get his reaction to Iowa’s 66-65 loss to Maryland.
Losing under any circumstance is depressing, but Tuesday’s loss for the 6-foot-10 Garza had a devastating effect.
You could see it on his face, and hear it in his voice as he answered questions from the media.
Garza barely spoke above a whisper and you kept waiting for a tear to slide down his cheek as he struggled through the interview.
He had failed to score in double figures for a fourth consecutive game, after having scored at least 16 points in the previous seven games. But unlike the previous three games, Iowa lost on Tuesday and that was hard for Garza to take.
"I didn't help my team tonight," said Garza, who only made 1-of-7 shots from the field and finished with five points, which is nearly nine below his per-game average. "That's always tough in a close game. There is so much more that I could have done.
“So it’s a tough one. It’s just unfortunate. I wanted to help my guys win and I didn’t.”
Garza’s current slump has sort of come out of nowhere.
He has struggled with early foul problems that have resulted in long stretches on the bench.
But Garza was performing at such a high level on offense heading into the game at Indiana on Feb. 7 that it was easy to assume it would continue.
Maryland also deserves some credit for Garza’s latest stinker, because with 6-10 Bruno Fernando and 6-11 Jalen Smith, the Terrapins have a lot to contend with on defense.
Garza had high praise for the Maryland players after Tuesday’s loss, but he was more critical of himself.
“I think both teams did a great job of trying to take away the inside game,” Garza said. “But I just personally think that it was just a lot on me more than the defense.”
That comment didn’t make Tuesday’s loss feel any better, but it should make fans feels better about Garza because it reminds us how invested these players are when it comes to winning.
Garza had even a worse game against Northwestern on Feb. 10th when he played just 17 minutes and failed to score a single point.
But Iowa overcame a 15-point deficit late in the second half and prevailed 80-79 on a 3-point buzzer-beater by Jordan Bohannon, and Garza was so happy about winning that his individual struggles didn’t matter at the time.
Iowa overcame an 11-point deficit against Maryland on Tuesday, but couldn’t close the deal this time.
And Garza couldn’t help but feel responsible for the loss, which is a good sign because it shows that he is accountable and fully invested in the team before anything else.
He didn’t make excuses or point fingers, other than at himself.
No one player loses a basketball game, but how a player reacts to losing is crucial to moving on to the next game.
Iowa only has two days to prepare for Friday’s game against Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, so Garza doesn’t have to wait long for a chance to redeem himself.
Somewhat lost in the delirium of winning four games in a row is that three of the wins against Indiana, Northwestern and Rutgers were games in which Iowa struggled against teams in the lower half of the conference.
A cynic would say that Iowa needed buzzer beaters to defeat two of the worst teams in the conference.
You also could say that Iowa is vulnerable when Garza struggles on offense.
So it is imperative that Garza break out his slump because it’s hard to envision Iowa reaching its potential with him struggling on offense.
He and junior forward Tyler Cook are a formidable one-two punch on offense when both are playing well. Defenses have to be aware of them at all times and that helps to create space for Iowa’s perimeter shooters.
But Cook also struggled against Maryland, scoring just six points on four field-goal attempts.
Combine the struggles of Cook and Garza with freshman Joe Wieskamp scoring just two points and it's amazing that Iowa still had a chance to beat Maryland at the end.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery certainly isn't ready to panic about losing or worry about any player who might be struggling.
That was apparent after Tuesday's loss when McCaffery was asked if any area on the team concerned him at this point.
He answered with a quick "no" and then was silent.
Luka Garza didn’t show much on the court against Maryland, but he showed the kind of leadership and maturity afterwards that is so crucial to a team’s success.
He just needs to keep grinding and keep working because there is no magic cure for breaking out of a slump.
Garza knows that he can be a force at this level, so there is no reason for him to lose confidence.
He already has taken the first, and maybe the most important step in ending a slump, by accepting responsibility for it.