BLOOMINGTON — Yarden Garzon had something to say.
About her game, sure. The sophomore excelled on the court Thursday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, as No. 9 Indiana women’s basketball dismantled Eastern Illinois in a 96-43 win on opening night.
But Garzon’s thoughts after the game quickly strayed away from the hardwood, and it’s hard to blame her. On October 7 — only a few weeks into IU’s preseason practices — terrorist group Hamas launched a surprise attack on her home country, Israel. Thousands of rockets flew from the Gaza Strip into Israel, reigniting its conflict with Palestine and stoking rampant warfare. Hamas took around 200 hostages amidst the attack, per Wikipedia.
Garzon’s sister, Lior, is also in the United States, as she plays for Oklahoma State. But the rest of her family is in Ra’anana, Israel, as this situation unfolds. She’s understandably worried for her family and friends back home, as well as her homeland at large. IU head coach Teri Moren said Garzon’s mother, Ruth, maintains regular contact with the program to provide updates on the situation so they can know the family is safe.
When reporters had exhausted their questions for Garzon and Lexus Bargesser after Thursday’s game, the Israeli native wasn’t finished.
“I want, if I can, to add something,” Garzon said. “I’m sure you all know I’m Israeli and everything is going through in my country. I’m trying to do whatever I can to put it on this stage.”
Garzon isn’t a particularly emotional player on the court — she more closely resembles the stoicism of Sara Scalia. It surprised Lior when Yarden let out just one passionate scream after a big moment during IU’s game against Nebraska last season. But her body language while talking about the ongoing situation in Israel showed how important this issue is to her.
The sophomore, literally, wore the message on her sleeve.
Garzon revealed she’d played this game wearing a wristband with “Bring Them Home” written in big letters, referencing the hostages. Underneath that, she wrote the name “Noam Avigdori,” a 12-year-old who was kidnapped with her mother by Hamas.
“I hope she will come back soon,” Garzon said.
Indiana players’ Instagram stories typically look similar. They share each other’s posts, photos of themselves during games, game-day graphics, and other related content. In other words, normal social media activity for 18 to 22-year-olds who live under a brighter spotlight than the average college student.
But Garzon’s Instagram story looks different. Over the last month, her story has featured a constant flurry of content relating to the Israel-Gaza conflict. She’s shared so many infographics, news stories, videos, and other posts she comes across showing the threat her homeland is facing and the impact it’s having on innocent lives.
Student-athletes already have so much to stay on top of, between schoolwork, workouts, game plans, and more. But Garzon has a lot more more weighing on her mind than her peers, and more than most can truly understand.
“She is caught up with paying attention to the news and what’s going on, and it’s hard. It’s easy for me to say, ‘Don’t stay up and watch the news,’ but it’s so hard for her because she is obviously worried. She’s worried about her family, her sister, her brother, and certainly all of her friends that are over there. And so our charge has just been to support her in every way we can,” Moren said. “None of us can put ourselves in her shoes, but what we can do is continue to remind her that we’re here for her.”
This isn’t the first time Moren’s had a player in a situation like this. In 2022, Aleksa Gulbe was entering her final March run with the Hoosiers when Russia invaded Ukraine, and she worried for her family back home in Latvia.
Gulbe’s concerns were real, and valid. But that war was in a neighboring country; this conflict is much closer to Garzon’s loved ones.
But basketball is serving a similar purpose for Garzon now as it did for Gulbe at that time. Practices have been an escape. When Garzon is on the court, she can focus her attention on something other than the ongoing conflict in Israel. The concerns never truly go away, but it’s important to be able to turn the volume down at times, even if only for a few hours.
So Garzon has thrown herself into the game over the last month, and it’s only further fueled her improvements.
On the court, Garzon matched a career-high with seven assists Thursday, and she didn’t commit any turnovers. She shot 7 for 10 for 15 points, and she added five rebounds and a steal.
But while Garzon’s game as a freshman mainly centered around her prolific 3-point shooting ability, she showed off other skills against Eastern Illinois. She spent her summer working on playing more aggressively and physically — and she filled out her frame more, particularly in her shoulders, to complement that effort. Garzon put that work to good use Thursday, with some strong finishes in the post, even through some double-teams.
“I see so much confidence in Yarden coming into her sophomore season,” Bargesser said. “Even in practice, it shows, her attacking the basket, she’s so confident and capable of putting it in the hoop. And obviously, she can do it behind the arc, too.”
Garzon could be a crucial player for the Hoosiers this season, after already displaying massive potential as a freshman. And as long as the conflict in Israel rages on, she’ll have the situation near the front of her mind and her heart.
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