By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Given his sustained dominance throughout the season, it’s easy to overlook or forget that Luka Garza has a willing and able supporting cast.
It’s easy to be captivated by what the 6-foot-11 Garza contributes to each game because his level of play truly has been spectacular this season, with Saturday’s game against Penn State the latest example.
But Garza would also be the first to tell you that Iowa doesn’t beat Penn State on Saturday without his supporting cast also rising to the occasion.
Garza did his thing as usual, scoring a team-high 25 points and grabbing 17 rebounds during the 77-68 victory before a sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But Iowa also had five other players who scored at least six points, four players who grabbed at least five rebounds and four who had at least three assists.
“We wanted to mix things up on him defensively,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said of Garza. “Sometimes we were going to double him. Sometimes we wouldn’t double him. We were trying to keep him off-balanced.
“I thought we did a good job on him today. Other Iowa players helped him by opening things up on offense.”
Garza struggled at times with Penn State’s size and physicality and only made 11-of-28 field-goal attempts.
He also made a couple easy baskets near the end of the game, but it still marked the 14th consecutive game in which Garza has scored at least 20 points.
That surpasses the mark of 13 straight games in which Fred Brown had at least 20 points for the Hawkeyes in 1971.
Garza credited his teammates after the game for helping him to become such a prolific scorer. He compared the way in which he’s being fed in the post to how former Iowa forward Tyler Cook was helped on offense the last two seasons.
“They’re giving me the ball and finding ways to give me the ball, which is really not an easy task” Garza said. “I know that from trying to feed (Tyler Cook) over the last two years in the post. When team’s game plan and help over, you’ve got to be a really good passer and you’ve got to be crafty to get them the ball.
“So credit to them, and obviously, credit to some of the work that I did in the summer just to prepare myself for this moment. There’s a lot of factors that go into to my success, but I give all my credit to my teammates and coaches.”
Emotions ran high throughout Saturday's game, and the Nittany Lions didn't always handle it well as guard Jamari Wheeler and center Mike Watkins both were called for technical fouls.
"I think we let the emotions get to us a little bit," Chambers said. "We can't get technical fouls and hurt ourselves and hurt our teammates. So we'll learn from that. We'll get better. We'll keep it in check."
It could be hard, however, for Penn State to change in that regard based on what Iowa senior forward Ryan Kriener said after the game.
"I don't know if we really got under their skin, I think that just might be the kind of group they are," Kriener said. "They're a really macho group and they carry themselves really highly."
Kriener wasn't necessarily bad-mouthing the Penn State players because he quickly shifted to praising Chambers, and they embraced during the post-game handshake.
"I have a lot of respect for Pat Chambers," Kriener said. "But his teams have always had a chip on the shoulder and toughness. And they're not a afraid to talk a little junk and stuff like that. So for whatever reason, they got T-ed up today."
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Iowa used eight players on Saturday, including redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick, and all eight players scored at least two points, and three finished in double figures.
Fredrick finished with 10 points after having missed the last three games due to an ankle injury, while sophomore Joe Wieskamp scored 13 points and had six rebounds.
“He’s a great player,” Chambers said of the 6-3 Fredrick, who is from Cincinnati, Ohio. “We recruited him, too.”
Chambers was asked after Saturday’s game if it’s easy to overlook Garza’s supporting cast.
“Not as a coach, but for you out there, yes,” Chambers said. “For you guys, the media, yeah.”
Chambers also had high praise for freshman point guard Joe Toussaint, sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp and sophomore guard Connor McCaffery, who is the son of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
Toussaint only scored two points on Saturday, but he compensated with eight assists and two steals in 16 minutes, while Wieskamp bounced back with a double-digit scoring performance after being held to just four points in the loss at Michigan State this past Tuesday.
As for the 6-5 Connor McCaffery, he finished with six points, four assists and zero turnovers. It marked the 12th game this season in which Connor McCaffery has not had a turnover.
“I think the biggest difference for them is Connor McCaffery,” Chambers said. “Man is he steady. He is the rock that keeps everything together.”
Fran McCaffery met with the media shortly after Chambers had finished his post-game press conference and was told what Chambers had said about Connor McCaffery, whose role on Saturday included guarding Penn State forward Lamar Stevens early in the game.
“It’s a great feeling, but it’s something I think we all understand and appreciate from him,” Fran McCaffery said of his son. “He starts the game guarding Lamar Stevens, one of the best players in the country. You know he’s giving up thirty pounds. That’s not an easy cover. And then he’s playing point guard against Jamari Wheeler, one of the quickest players in the country. And they’re running two guys at him. We played him at the two a little bit.
“But he’s one of those guys that when things get a little bit sideways, he’s the guy that they lean on in terms of making sure we’re running the right set, we’re all in the right defense, we’re all connected at both ends of the floor. He does calm everybody down, and appreciate Pat saying that. And it’s an astute observation from his standpoint because that’s exactly what he does.”
Toussaint showed on Saturday that he doesn’t have to score a lot of points to impact a game. His quickness helps Iowa on both ends of the floor.
“That’s just all about my game,” Toussaint said. “I don’t have to score the ball, to be honest with you. It doesn’t matter to me at all.
“I get a lot of assists. I can get steals. I can get rebounds as well. Basketball is not all about scoring.”
The second half started with Iowa clinging to a 35-34 lead, but the lead quickly swelled to nine points as Iowa scored on its first three possessions and started the half on a 10-2 scoring run.
“They really jumped us in the second half,” Chambers said. “I thought that was the difference, that first eight minutes in the second half. We couldn’t really recover.
“(Iowa) played with great energy and with passion. They made all the right plays.”
Iowa improved to 20-9 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten and has two games left in the regular season with Purdue up next on Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa will close the regular season at Illinois this coming Sunday.
Penn State fell to 21-8 overall and 11-7 in conference play.
Iowa's chances of winning the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 1979 is now a longshot, but there still is a chance for Iowa to earn a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament, which goes to the top four teams in the standings.
The fans certainly did their part on Saturday by packing the arena and providing energy throughout the game, and their contribution didn’t go unnoticed.
“We kind of went through a little slump in the first half and they picked us up,” Fredrick said. ‘”It got really loud in here and we feed of that.
“So I think just having that kind of home-court advantage really helps us at home.”