When Ignas Brazdeikis caught the ball, everything felt natural.
With just under two minutes left in the game, the freshman forward received a pass from junior guard Zavier Simpson. And though, at that point, he was just 5-for-15 from the field, his confidence never wavered.
Brazdeikis stood behind the arc and released the ball. It found nothing but net.
“It felt good,” Brazdeikis said. “I was just ready. I don’t feel pressure in any moment of the game. I’m mentally prepared for each and every second, so when I caught that ball it was just like in practice, shoot around.”
It was that shot that all but iced the game for No. 2 Michigan in its 68-55 win over Penn State. It raised his field-goal percentage to 37.5 percent, a number that makes it seem like he was off his game. But even with shooting numbers below his standard, Brazdeikis finished with a double-double — 16 points and 11 rebounds — and, more importantly, played perhaps his most complete game when the Wolverines needed him most.
Just before the game, Michigan found out that it would be without sophomore forward Isaiah Livers due to back spasms. Without a good backup option at power forward, that meant Brazdeikis played over 38 minutes, a career high.
In a first half where his shots weren’t falling — he had just four points on 2-for-9 shooting — Brazdeikis did everything else on the court. He locked down Penn State forward Lamar Stevens, who got 17 points off 44 touches, per Michigan coach John Beilein. He helped facilitate the offense. And he filled in on rebounding — an area that’s normally Livers’ specialty.
“(Livers is) a big body,” Brazdeikis said. “So I felt like rebounding was a big emphasis for us coming into the game. … It was just about boxing out and going for each and every single ball.”
It worked. Brazdeikis grabbed nine boards in the first half alone, more than he previously had in an entire game. After all, with Livers out, the only thing for the Wolverines to do was embrace rebounding. Livers has mentored Brazdeikis all season, giving him rebounding tips during games. So when the time came for Brazdeikis to fill that role, he did it seamlessly. In a first half that was ugly offensively, Brazdeikis’ rebounding gave Michigan more opportunities to convert possessions into points.
And soon enough, he found his own scoring stroke.
Just under two minutes into the second half, junior center Jon Teske grabbed a loose ball and fed it to Brazdeikis. He broke down the court for an easy layup and made the ensuing and-one. Two minutes later, he took advantage of another Penn State turnover for another two points. Another two minutes and he grabbed a board off a block. Just like that, he had his double-double and Michigan had its 13-point lead.
“I saw a kid that made and continues to make big shots when we need to in the second half — and he’s not having slow starts,” Beilein said. “He’s letting the game come to him early. He’s feeling things out. … He is really understanding you can do more by doing less sometimes.”
And on Thursday, that’s exactly what he did. The 3-pointer at the end was just the exclamation point.