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The bench reacts after a shot from Yarden Garzon during Indiana's win over Ohio State on Jan. 26. (HN photo/Cam Schultz)
The bench reacts after a shot from Yarden Garzon during Indiana's win over Ohio State on Jan. 26. (HN photo/Cam Schultz)

‘Not your normal freshman’: Half a world from home, Yarden Garzon claims key role for surging Indiana

The Israeli native uses her ultra-competitive nature to make immediate impact for Indiana

Yarden Garzon has proven herself to be a composed, even-keeled player on the court despite being just a freshman at Indiana. However, staying calm on the hardwood hasn’t always come so easily for the Israeli native. 

Garzon said she was “angry and had a temper” as recently as just a few years ago, but no one who watches her play today would recognize that player. 

“When I was young, I really got mad about everything,” Garzon said. “I yelled about everyone, about everything. My coaches started talking to me about it because it didn’t help the team.”

Her ultra-competitive nature was both a blessing … and a curse. 

Garzon knew it was an issue, and one that she would need to harness. But she had trouble balancing her positive, competitive energy and the anger that boiled up when things were trending in the wrong direction.

There was the time back in her home country when one of her Israeli teammates, the youngest player on the team, had committed an inordinate number of turnovers. Garzon couldn’t take it anymore and screamed at the top of her lungs in frustration. She immediately realized it was a poor decision, and Garzon knew what she had to do after the conclusion of practice.

“I just yelled about her really badly,” Garzon said. “After practice, I went over and talked to her more to bring up her confidence, because I knew what I did wasn’t good.”

Yarden Garzon prepares for a free throw during Indiana's win over Ohio State on Jan. 26. (HN photo/Cam Schultz)

In Bloomington, Garzon has been able to turn her ultra-competitive nature into arguably her best personality trait. It’s one of the primary reasons Indiana recruited her, and also one of the explanations why she has quickly become a fan favorite and an immediate starter.

It’s what everyone notices first about Garzon.

“She’s super competitive,” said her older sister Lior, who is a junior on the women’s basketball team at Oklahoma State University. “All she wants to do is win. It was more about basketball, it was less about real life. But with basketball, it was like, ‘I’m going to win this game no matter what and no matter what it’s going to take.’”

Garzon arrived in Indiana from Ra’anana, Israel, a suburb just outside of Tel Aviv. The dangerous climate in Israel is apparent to those living in America, but the Israelis view it as second nature because it’s all they have known. 

“It’s not something we’re concerned by every day,” said Garzon’s father, Eitan. “It’s in the atmosphere. In Israel, it’s always an issue — safety. You grow up in it. There’s no everyday feeling that something’s wrong, but it’s in the atmosphere.”

Garzon has three siblings, including her twin sister, Yuval. While Yarden decided to play college basketball in the U.S., Yuval is currently serving in the Israeli army. 

Yarden Garzon and her twin sister Yuval. (Photo courtesy of IU Athletics)

Being apart from Yuval has been one of the most difficult aspects of leaving Israel. 

“We have always been best friends,” Yuval said. “We talk about everything and we talk every night now about our days.”

Garzon knew college basketball was her preferred path, especially after watching Lior go through the recruiting process, where she committed to Villanova prior to transferring to Oklahoma State. Her older sister gave her advice about acclimating to a new country, and when she came to Indiana to work out with AAU coach Vernard Hollins, the decision was cemented.

Hollins is well-known not only for helping to prepare international basketball players for college, but also connecting the players with programs that will be a good fit. Garzon and her father planned a week-long trip to Indiana with Hollins, but after seeing the results of their three-a-day workouts, they decided to extend their stay. Hollins matched up Garzon against some of his AAU players and immediately saw something special. 

“She started playing against them and I was like, ‘Hey, she’s better than them. She’s better than all these kids,’” Hollins said. “She was dominating.”

Hollins wasted no time. He reached out to coaches at Michigan, Purdue and Xavier — and also called Indiana assistant coach Glenn Box.

Box took a look at Garzon on video and was captivated. 

“What stood out was the passion,” Box said. “You can just tell that when she gets locked in, she’s locked in.” 

Yarden Garzon and her twin sister Yuval. (Photo courtesy of IU Athletics)

The Hoosiers coaching staff was never able to see Garzon play in person but were sold after watching her on film. She was exactly what Indiana head coach Teri Moren and her staff wanted, and needed. She had size, versatility and skill. The language barrier made it more challenging over Zoom, but Garzon’s dad was there to help translate on both ends. 

 “We’re the best fans of her and we’re very, very proud,” Eitan said.  

Box recalls one of the final Zoom calls when Garzon came on without her dad for the first time, and yet was clearly comfortable with the staff. 

“You could tell the weight was off her shoulders,” Box said. “She did a tremendous job and you could tell she was more comfortable.”

Although she had improved her English by speaking to coaches over Zoom calls, she could have never anticipated the challenges she’d face when living solely within a foreign language. 

When Garzon first came to Bloomington, she was overwhelmed. She understood English from learning it in grade school, but this was different. People were speaking faster and the accents made it extremely difficult. She struggled to keep up with what her teammates were saying on and off the court and at times felt as though she didn’t belong. 

“In the first two or three weeks, from my point of view, I was like, out of here,” Garzon said of her early struggles. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was really hard with the English. I didn’t understand what I was really doing on the court.” 

Indiana freshman guard Yarden Garzon reaches for a rebound during Indiana's win over Vermont on Nov. 8. (HN photo/Max Wood)

The distance was another struggle. Garzon was in a foreign country and was more than 600 miles away from Lior. Often, all she wanted was to give her family members a hug. 

But the talks with them, especially with her twin sister Yuval, helped calm her nerves. 

“Sometimes at night, it can feel a bit scary or strange, so it’s helped a lot to talk to her,” Garzon said. “Because she knows me and she knows how to make me relax.”

Indiana senior Mackenzie Holmes (left) helps freshman Yarden Garzon up during Indiana's win over Maryland on Jan. 12. (HN photo/Cam Schultz)

Her teammates began to make a deliberate effort to speak more slowly and make sure they understood her, and at the same time, Garzon was continuing to work on her English. She began to feel more comfortable in the U.S. and on the team. 

“I realized that I’m part of the team,” Garzon said. “I’m not different from anyone here.”

Not only did she begin to feel like she was a part of the team, but she felt like a part of the community. She joined Chabad, a community for Jewish students on campus, and realized that there were other people in Bloomington who understood her and could make her feel at home. 

“I didn’t think that we had so many Jewish people here and particularly Israeli people here, so it’s helped me a lot,” Garzon said. “Every Friday night back home in Israel, I eat with my family. We never missed it. We were always at home together eating — the whole family. Once I got here, I really got scared that I would be alone on Friday nights. Once I had Chabad, it was way easier with everyone over there together.” 

As she grew more comfortable in the community, it started to also manifest itself on the court. 

Her competitive nature has stood out to her teammates and coaches as one of her greatest assets. Whether it’s at big moments in a game or during a shooting drill in practice, Garzon gives it her all.

And now she lets her actions tell the story.

Box recalled a moment in practice where he and Garzon were shooting against each other. They’d done this four or five times and Garzon never talked during the drill. 

“She always one-ups me,” Box said. “In the drill, if I make nine, she makes 10. If I make six, she makes seven. She rises to the level of her performance. There was one time one of our GAs, Shayna Gore, said to Yarden as she was walking off one time — and Yarden doesn’t say a word during this stuff — but she walks off and Gore says, ‘Has coach Box ever beat you?’ and Yarden goes, ‘Nope,’ and just walks off.

“That’s a tell-tale of who she is right there. She’s not a big talker, goes about her business and does it, but is extremely confident to say that and feel that way.”

Yarden Garzon drives during Indiana's win over Ohio State on Jan. 26. (HN photo/Cam Schultz)

Garzon was always on track to assume a starting role at Indiana, but no one thought she’d be this good, this soon.

“When I came at first, I didn’t expect anything,” she said. “The coaches said they believed in me and I will have an impact in the first year. They thought I could do it, but I didn’t really know what it was going to look like.”

Garzon has started all 23 games so far and is averaging 12.0 points per game, 4.8 boards and 3.5 assists, all while shooting 49 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks first in the Big Ten and third in the entire country.

She’s been a major component of why this Hoosiers team has a chance to make history and reach the Final Four for the first time.

“Her level of maturity is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a freshman,” Hoosiers star senior Mackenzie Holmes said of Garzon. “Not even a freshman — from any basketball player. She just has this knack for stepping up in big moments.”

There have been times when Garzon has let the emotion out, but she no longer needs to apologize to anyone.

In an overtime victory against Nebraska on Jan. 1, Garzon finally let out a roar after making a huge play that, in large part, helped the Hoosiers secure the win. It was the first time her teammates and coaches had seen a reaction like this from her in person, but it wasn’t unexpected. 

“It’s almost like we were waiting for her to do that,” Box said. 

The storyline during the offseason was the trio of transfers that the Hoosiers picked up with Sydney Parrish, Alyssa Geary and Sara Scalia. Garzon’s arrival on campus was overshadowed, but it didn’t take long for that to change. 

Garzon has gone from under-the-radar to being a key catalyst on a team that has aspirations of winning IU’s first Big Ten regular-season title for the first time in 40 years. Garzon and the team will look to move toward that goal Thursday night when they face their biggest conference opponent, No. 5 Iowa, at Assembly Hall. 

“She just sees the game differently,” Moren said of Garzon. “She’s not your normal freshman.”

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