Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis stood in the bowels of the Crisler Center on Saturday evening, mobbed by reporters after his 19-point performance sparked the Michigan men’s basketball team past Holy Cross, 56-37.
For most freshmen, it would be an intimidating situation — thrust into the spotlight just minutes after his second ever collegiate game. Not for Brazdeikis.
At one point, a reporter noted his 8-for-8 performance from the line and asked whether he is one of the Wolverines’ best free throw shooters in practice. Brazdeikis leaned back and cracked a smile.
“I’m one of the best free throw shooters in the world.”
It’s an insane confidence, but it’s not entirely unwarranted. According to his (seemingly incomplete) high school stats page, he made all 28 of his free throw attempts last season.
That confidence is what allows Brazdeikis to be who he is. At one point in the second half, he flexed to the crowd after a missed layup — he assumed it would go in. Moments later, he made up for it with a corner three in front of Michigan’s student section, before turning around and flashing a pair of money signs.
“It’s just my thing, I like to point a little money sign,” Brazdeikis said. “It gets me going a little bit, pumps me up, motivates me, gets the crowd going. So, it’s a good thing.”
At that point, the Wolverines needed anything to get the crowd going. They trailed 24-18 at halftime after a 5-for-24 first half shooting performance. Brazdeikis had four points, and the team had hit just two of its 11 3-point attempts.
“We just changed everything we were doing at halftime and just simplified what we were doing,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Because we were just running all this stuff to get leverage and we weren’t getting so I said, ‘To heck with it, let’s just attack them off the bounce.’ “
Beilein didn’t specifically call for Brazdeikis to be the one attacking — he didn’t need to.
14 seconds into the half, Brazdeikis took control of the Wolverines’ first possession, beat a defender, and scored his second field goal of the night.
“It was just my aggressive mindset for sure,” Bradeikis said. “I need to keep that going cause that’s the player I’ve always been my entire life. And I feel like, as long as I continue that mentality, things will happen, good things.”
After his 3-pointer — Michigan’s only made three of the half — and a pair of free throws, Brazdeikis had cut the deficit to one before Jacob Grandison hit a jumper for the Crusaders.
Those were the last points the Wolverines allowed for more than seven minutes as they scored 15 unanswered — including eight from Brazdeikis — to turn a three point deficit into a 12 point lead. Midway through the stretch, Beilein gave his freshman a short breather. As soon as he returned, Michigan’s next two baskets came off of his assists.
“I felt like in the first half, we were more hesitant, we weren’t aggressive enough,” Brazdeikis said. “And they were playing a matchup zone so I knew there were gonna be places and spots where you could attack and make plays. And I was just focused on being aggressive and making plays and it worked out.”
Added Beilein: “We really just simplified our attack in the second half and just tried to go off penetration. We weren’t out-smarting them, we had to go with just some speed, some quickness. And certainly Iggy got us off to a great start.”
Relying on freshman is rarely a trait of Beilein teams, especially this early in the season. With Brazdeikis, it might have to be.