ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 286

Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers playing against the Lipscomb Bisons at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, November 19, 2023. (Gretta Cohoon/Indiana Athletics)
Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers playing against the Lipscomb Bisons at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, November 19, 2023. (Gretta Cohoon/Indiana Athletics)
'It's a small help, but I do everything to raise awareness'

Full court press: Rising NCAA basketball star Yarden Garzon proudly reps Israel

The 20-year-old Indiana Hoosiers guard from Ra’anana uses platform to dispel ‘fake news’ about her home country as anti-Zionist rhetoric soars amid ongoing war in Gaza

Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers playing against the Lipscomb Bisons at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, November 19, 2023. (Gretta Cohoon/Indiana Athletics)

ALBANY, New York — Shy and reserved by nature, Yarden Garzon says she is most comfortable on the basketball court, where she can let her game do all the talking.

In the most important game to date in the burgeoning career of the 20-year-old from the central Israeli city of Ra’anana, and with the war in Gaza weighing heavily on her mind, her play made quite the statement.

The Indiana Hoosiers sophomore — two or three years younger than all her teammates on the court — found herself looking up at the scoreboard early in the third quarter of a must-win “Sweet 16” NCAA tournament battle against the top-ranked and undefeated powerhouse South Carolina Gamecocks.

Garzon and everyone else in the full arena of nearly 15,000 fans — in addition to a large audience on national television on a Good Friday holiday in the United States — could see how South Carolina was steamrolling yet another opponent, as they were up by 22 points over the Hoosiers.

“I saw the score. I knew it was now or never and I just wanted to leave everything on the court,” said the 6-foot-3 guard, reflecting on the moment.

Garzon broke free of her defender, hit a three-point jump shot, and got fouled to head to the free-throw line, to try to complete a rare four-point play. She swished the free throw, and over the next 15 minutes, made a few more shots and grabbed a few more rebounds, while adding a couple of assists and a steal. Her determined effort was critical to a huge comeback that got Indiana to within just two points of South Carolina with a minute to play.

In the Gamecocks’ 35-0 season, only two other teams had managed to be that close so late in the game, and none had come from so far behind to get there.

Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers playing against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. (Sammy Nance/Indiana Athletics)

Unfortunately for Garzon, as stirring as her display of grit and determination was, she and her team could not quite get over the hump, eventually falling 79-75, removing them from March Madness.

“We felt like we had it in our hands… I still don’t get that the season’s over,” she said somberly in the locker room after the game. “But I’m proud that we didn’t give up.”

Despite the disappointment, there were plenty of high points Garzon will be able to remember fondly from the 2023-24 campaign, most notably a 30-point outburst in December against Evansville, when she made a stunning 12 of 14 shots. For the season, she started every one of Indiana’s 32 games and averaged a healthy 11.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest. Already a high-impact player last year as a freshman, Garzon made great progress on all aspects of her game in her second year, keeping her on track to fulfill her long-term dream of becoming a star in the WNBA.

Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, September 20, 2023. (Gretta Cohoon/Indiana Athletics)

But there were also the difficulties of trying to focus on basketball, not to mention her economics and math studies, while being consumed with what was happening back home — the horrors of October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butchered 1,200 people and abducted 253 more, and the ensuing war in Gaza.

“When [the war] started, I was like, ‘Well, I want to go home,’ because it was so hard. But my teammates and my coaches did a great job of supporting me. They have been there for me from day one. And they try to understand everything. They followed the news like almost every day, so they knew what my situation was.”

Garzon also realized that she could help Israel by staying in the American heartland if she was able to get out of her comfort zone — to push herself by welcoming having a high profile, and being willing to test her English language skills, so she could fully leverage her platform as an elite athlete capable of speaking out.

“My power is here, to try to talk about it as much as I can here. It’s the smallest help, but everything I do right now is trying to raise awareness about what’s going on in Israel with the hostages,” she said. “I am trying to post as much as possible on social media to educate people about what’s really going on. I know there is a lot of fake news out there. And I really want to spread the reality of everything going on. I’m glad to get good feedback. Sometimes I get the other side as well, but I try to focus on the good.”

As part of making her support highly visible, she proudly draped the Israeli flag around her while having a team photo taken early in the season. And she was quite vocal in her appreciation for a special “We Stand With Yarden” night at one home game, where she was the last player introduced to a huge ovation.

And after initially writing “bring them home” on her wrist tape, she now wears a dog tag necklace to more prominently send that message, and she talks about it whenever she can, including at game day press conferences.

Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers in the locker room after the game with the South Carolina Gamecocks, March 29, 2024, proudly displaying a dog tag necklace with the words ‘Bring Them Home’ on behalf of the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza. (Ed Klajman)

While admitting to some days being very hard to endure, especially if she wakes up to particularly bad news from Israel, a big help is that older sister Lior is also a top basketball talent in the NCAA. Two years older, Lior has played the last two years at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, about a 10-hour drive from the Indiana campus in Bloomington. The two are in constant contact and are able to closely relate to what the other is experiencing.

At the same time, the person Yarden describes as her best friend — her twin sister Yuval — is back in Israel, serving in the IDF, as are many of their friends.

Yarden and Yuval make sure they connect daily, even if there is only time to just say hello.

“My relationship with my twin sister is something that I cannot describe,” Yarden said. “She’s my life. We each have a tattoo that says ‘one of two’ because we are such close friends. We know everything about each other. We know what each other thinks and feels. I cannot imagine my life without her.”

Yarden is also quick to point out, with a big smile, that she owes her introduction to basketball to Yuval. Yarden did not want to attend a tryout for the sport when they were young, but Yuval wanted to go and insisted Yarden come along. So Yarden went and got hooked on the sport immediately, while Yuval quickly lost interest and ended up focusing on dance instead. That made her unique in the family, as father Eitan and brother Dvir were also competitive basketball players, while mother Ruth used to play volleyball at a high level.

Yarden Garzon of the Indiana Hoosiers playing against the Lipscomb Bisons at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, November 19, 2023. (Gretta Cohoon/Indiana Athletics)

With the season now over, Yarden will take a small break from basketball to focus on her schoolwork, celebrate Passover with Indiana University’s sizable Jewish community, and then visit Israel after the semester to spend time with family and friends before returning to campus to gear up for the next basketball season.

With the key players of this year’s team graduating, next season will be very different. The Hoosiers will be Garzon’s team, and she is expected to be the focal point on offense and defense, as well as the squad’s locker room leader.

Indiana coach Teri Moren has plenty of confidence there will be great things to come for her Israeli star. Moren said that in her over 30 years of coaching, she had never encountered a freshman player arriving as mature as Garzon did.

Indiana Hoosiers head coach Teri Moren speaks with guards Yarden Garzon (#12) and Henna Sandvik (#21) during a game between the Evansville Purple Aces and the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, December 18, 2023. (Levi Jones/Indiana Athletics)

“She is not afraid of taking a big shot, and that’s what I’ve always loved about her and we’ve respected about Yarden,” said Moren. “She’s a great teammate. She’s intelligent on and off the floor. She understands the game. You can play her at one through five [all the positions in basketball], which makes it kind of fun for a coach. She’s a terrific young lady, and it’s great that we have her in our program. She’s somebody that’s going to continue to improve.”

As for Garzon, who started playing club basketball with Maccabi Ra’anana at 8 years old and continued until she graduated from high school, she is resolute about meeting her ambitious long-term goals in the sport, not just to become a professional in the WNBA, but to play a leading role on the Israeli national team.

“I’m so proud to play with Israel on my chest,” she said. “There is no feeling like playing for our country. Before every game when we are singing the anthem, it’s such a different, exciting, proud feeling.”

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