March is going to hurt.
March delivers more pain that pleasure in the NCAA Tournament. Sixty-seven of the 68 teams have their seasons ended with a loss, and even Luka Garza, a student of the game, knows that the odds of a happy finish are long.
But Garza wanted to come back to Iowa for his senior season to try to be on the right side of those odds, because he thought the Hawkeyes had the roster to do it.
That chance, he thought, was too good to pass up.
Pain came on Monday, when Garza and the Hawkeyes were eliminated from the tournament in a 95-80 loss to Oregon in the second round in Indianapolis.
March’s reality can be cruel to even the best players, which is why Garza sobbed on coach Fran McCaffery’s shoulder as he left the court for the final time.
“I really wanted to take this team and lead this team to where we could be,” Garza said. “I felt like this was a team where our season wasn’t supposed to be over today. That’s upsetting to me because I just … everybody in that locker room worked so hard to be able to get back to this moment, and it’s upsetting that we couldn’t be able to excel and win the game. That’s obviously the most upsetting thing.
“Obviously I love the University of Iowa. I love my teammates. I love my coaches. These guys changed my life, and I worked as hard as I could, and I played as hard as I could, and obviously it just hurts that it’s over.”
Garza left behind numbers that will live in the program’s history. He leaves as its all-time leading scorer at 2,306 points, a two-time consensus first-team All-American, a two-time national player of the year by so many outlets, a two-time Big Ten player of the year. His jersey number 55 will be retired.
His final game was a 36-point effort, his final performance on a big stage in a season played during a pandemic.
Garza hugged teammates who came into the game in those closing seconds, young players who will be part of the program in the future. He has given them an education all season, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has said, and it’s a role Garza has embraced.
“Yeah, it just kind of all hit me at once, just obviously looking up at the scoreboard and knowing that I would never put on this jersey again,” he said. “I think it just all hit me at once. I was trying to tell those guys, the next time that they get back there, back here, they’re going to be able to push us to where we need to go. I couldn’t do it, but they can, and they’re all a bunch of hard workers and they’re going to be able to do it.”
“His leadership, his work ethic, his determination, his example for the young players, his consistency of effort and performance — we may never see another one like him,” McCaffery said. “Certainly we’ve had some great ones that have worn the black and gold, and he’s right there at the top with his production, and like I said, his consistency. I think that’s the legacy that he will leave, and that’s why I think everybody in Hawkeye Nation just so appreciates who he is.
“I think that’s the message that I have. I just told him I just appreciate so much who he is more so than what he’s done. It’s been an honor.”
The Hawkeyes joined the casualties on a bracket of carnage for the big seeds. A little more than a week ago, the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament — Ohio State vs. Michigan, Iowa vs. Illinois — resembled a Final Four, all top-10 teams considered contenders for a title.By mid-afternoon Monday, the only team left in that group was Michigan.
Garza remembered his first season, when the Hawkeyes went 14-19. A year later, they were back in the NCAA Tournament. They would have been there last season had the tournament not been canceled.
His final opportunity at a championship fell agonizingly short — something, he said, he’s not going to forget.
“To come here again and fall short again and not being able to get to the Sweet 16 and beyond, that’s heartbreaking,” Garza said. “The one thing I know is that I couldn’t have played any harder. I couldn’t have worked any harder. I put everything I could into this, and it just wasn’t meant to be. Like I said, that’s something that’s going to sting for the rest of my life because I won’t ever have another opportunity at it.”
John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning reporter and editor, and a regular contributor to Pen City Current
March is going to hurt.