Iowa’s guards ride the Garza waves

By John Bohnenkamp

IOWA CITY — Waves of Carolina blue kept pounding Luka Garza.

It wasn’t unexpected. Garza, Iowa’s 6-foot-11 All-American center, has been pushed, shoved, grabbed, smothered, whatever you want to call it, over the last two seasons.

And he knew with the frontcourt depth and height of North Carolina, it was going to be one of those kinds of nights when he and the third-ranked Hawkeyes played the 16th-ranked Tar Heels in Tuesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. 

Here’s the thing — that wasn’t really the plan, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

“We didn’t try to double him,” Williams said. “We were trying to play him one-on-one, and hope that our size would bother him. And if it wasn’t doing well, then we would double-team him.”

But the cascade of Tar Heels — there were four of them 6-10 or taller who would rotate on Garza — left Iowa’s shooters open.

Seventeen 3-pointers later, Iowa had a 93-80 win.

“They were making shots,” Williams said, “when we kept running in there (to defend Garza).”

Jordan Bohannon had seven 3-pointers and finished with 24 points. CJ Fredrick had five threes, and finished with 21 points. Joe Wieskamp also had five threes, and finished with 19.

“We didn’t guard the 3-point shooter,” Williams said. “And if you go by our defensive principles that we do every single day, then we wouldn’t have allowed those 3-point (shots).

“And they happened to make a bunch of them.”

The biggest bunch belonged to Bohannon, a fifth-year senior coming off two hip surgeries in 2019, one in the summer and the second one in December that ended his season.

Bohannon had scored just 11 points in Iowa’s first three games. But he has built a career of being a big-shot artist when there’s a big game.

And this was a big game.

“I’ve been here for, it feels like, 20 years. I kind of have a lot of experience in my belt.” Bohannon said.

Bohannon had two 3-pointers in Iowa’s 25-9 run to start the game. The Hawkeyes went 7-of-9 in threes during that run, and they would finish the game 17-of-40.

This is the blueprint of roster construction by Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has built. Garza is the dominant post player — he came into the game leading the nation in scoring at 34 points per game — but McCaffery knew what he had seen last year, especially in Big Ten play when Bohannon was out. Defenses were going to crash on Garza, and then hope that shooters like Wieskamp and Fredrick wouldn’t go off.

Garza would still get his points — his streak of 19 consecutive games of 20 points or more ended on this night, when he finished with 16 — but there would be nights when either Wieskamp or Fredrick, or both, wouldn’t be making shots.

The rapid ball movement as the Hawkeyes kept finding open shooters was a sign that this team was built for this moment.

“They were physical. They have size. They rotated some guys,” McCaffery said of the Tar Heels. “When they’re in like that, you have to move it, move it, move it, shoot open jumpers.”

“That’s the reason why I came back,” said Garza, who went through the NBA draft process over the summer. “I wanted to be a part of this group. I knew the potential of this team and the guys we had around me, who can all score the ball and help us win.

“I’m thankful for them for picking me up when I wasn’t having the greatest offensive night.”

Iowa (4-0) led by as much as 16 points in the first half and was up 43-31 at halftime, the last points coming on a Fredrick 3-pointer with one second left.

The Tar Heels (3-2) didn’t go away. They had an 8-3 start to the second half, trimming Iowa’s lead to one point on three separate occasions before finally getting the lead twice, the last time at 68-67 with 9:30 to play.

But Iowa went on a 14-0 run, a surge bookended by Bohannon 3-pointers.

Two of the biggest plays in that run came from reserves. Sophomore Joe Toussaint had a layup to put Iowa up, 72-68, then freshman Keegan Murray had a 3-point play to push the lead to seven points.

Bohannon’s last 3-pointer came with 4:34 to go. Iowa led 88-76, and the Tar Heels were done.

Bohannon proclaimed before the season that this was the best he felt. On Tuesday, he talked of being in a “dark place” as the injuries to both hips consumed him in the past.

“The last year-and-half, two years, have kind of been hell,” Bohannon said. “Obviously there are a lot of worse things than having surgery and missing basketball games. But there’s been a lot of soul-searching.”

His quiet start to this season meant nothing to McCaffery. He’s seen enough, and knows plenty, about Bohannon.

“He’s been shooting it that way every day,” McCaffery said. “If he gets open shots, he’s going to make them. I don’t care who we play. That’s the way he is.”

Garza, who had 14 rebounds, did finish with his 24th career double-double.

“Guys, I’m going to tell you,” Williams said. “Luka Garza is the real deal. “You look at the numbers he’s put up. I think it boils down to one thing. He’s got probably tons more sweat than other guys have, and that’s something I’ve always admired.”

The waves of different colors will be coming at Garza all season. His guards, though, know how to break down that surge.

Especially someone like Bohannon, wise and healthy and still full of big shots.

“I know going forward teams are really going to be putting game plans on me,” Garza said. “And when you give open shots to our shooters … we have some of the best shooters in the country.

“Those guys are going to kill you.”

Photo: Jordan Bohannon shoots a 3-pointer in Iowa’s 93-80 win over North Carolina on Tuesday night. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

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