Brazdeikis comes through when Michigan needs him most

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - 9:21pm

Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis managed to score in key moments during Michigan's 62-60 win over the Wildcats.

Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis managed to score in key moments during Michigan's 62-60 win over the Wildcats. Buy this photo
Annie Klus/Daily

The Michigan basketball team’s trip to Northwestern on Tuesday night was not supposed to be the toughest challenge of its young season.

But with five minutes to play, it had become just that. Every time the Wolverines threatened to pull away, the Wildcats reeled back within striking distance. Leads of 10, 15 and 10 were matched with a trio of Northwestern scoring runs.

Most teams would turn to a veteran presence in that moment of adversity. Michigan, on the surface, should be no different. Seven members of its eight-man rotation were here last year, when the Wolverines won 14 straight games en route to the national title game. Despite not having any seniors, experience is not among this team’s limited weaknesses.

Yet, when its undefeated season lay in the balance for the first time, Michigan called on its sole contributing freshman. And as he has done so often this season, that freshman — forward Ignas Brazdeikis, in case you haven’t been paying attention — came through for the Wolverines, rattling home a 3-pointer to break a six-minute scoring drought and erase their first second-half deficit in more than three weeks.

“He gets us buckets when we can’t get one sometimes,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of Brazdeikis. “… He makes such obvious freshmen mistakes sometimes, … and then, all of a sudden, he’ll just go get you a bucket.”

When Northwestern scored seven straight in the first half to draw within three, it was Brazdeikis who took the ball at the top of the key, charged toward the hoop and nailed a left-handed floater. One possession later, the Wildcats’ defense crowded the lane, forcing him into a fadeaway jumper from an impossible angle. Nothing but net.

“That’s why he came to Michigan,” Beilein said. “He watched Nik Stauskas make a lot of those big shots and he wanted to be in this element and play in front of that crowd today. That’s who he is and that’s why we love him.”

After taking a 36-30 lead into the break, the Wolverines’ offense began to wilt. Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, Michigan’s on-court leader, followed an eight-point first half by going 1-of-6 from the field in the second. As Simpson’s struggles reached their apex, junior center Jon Teske had to sit with foul trouble. His backup — redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis — posted zero points, three fouls and a negative-9 plus-minus in just seven minutes.

But whenever his teammates faltered, Brazdeikis shone brightest, keeping the Wolverines afloat by scoring 12 of their first 18 points of the second half and assisting on two more.

“We got knocked down, but I feel like this game brought us more together,” Brazdeikis said. “I feel like we grew a lot, and it showed how tough we are.”

Before the season, most would have anticipated the Wolverines to call on redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews or sophomore guard Jordan Poole in an imposing late-game road environment. Matthews was deemed to be the team’s most NBA-ready player and Poole had been there before, saving Michigan’s 2018 season with his now-immortalized buzzer-beater.

Instead, those two epitomized Michigan’s struggles down the stretch, combining for just four second-half points.

In their place stepped a freshman. Even if he makes that detail easy to forget.