Ignas Brazdeikis hit the floor and 12,707 hearts stopped.
The freshman forward lay on his back, clutching his left knee in pain, and all of Michigan’s worst fears seemed to be coming to fruition.
On Wednesday, the Wolverines found out Charles Matthews wouldn’t be able to suit up for his own Senior Night with a right ankle injury. Now, their leading scorer was down on the ground after a collison under the basket just 13 seconds before halftime.
A trainer helped him up, and Brazdeikis gingerly made his way to the bench under his own power. When he took the floor to start the second half, Crisler Center exhaled. By the time he hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game, Michigan led by 24 with seven minutes remaining, and the harrowing moment at the end of the first half was a forgotten footnote in the Wolverines’ 82-53 win over Nebraska on Thursday.
“I sprinted over and I was like, ‘Please no, please no, please no,’ ” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “He said he was alright, he probably just tweaked it a little bit. … You see his playing, he hit four threes, so he was playing very well after that.”
And so was everyone else wearing a maize jersey. Michigan scored its most points since Dec. 8. It shot 56 percent from the field and 55 percent from three. It recorded 19 assists on its 30 made baskets. Brazdeikis, Livers, junior center Jon Teske and freshman forward Colin Castleton all scored in double-figures.
It was the Wolverines’ most dominant performance in weeks, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Great bounce-back for our guys after the other day,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It was great that we turned it around, coaching staff turned it around.”
The “other day,” of course, was the Wolverines’ 77-70 loss to Michigan State, in which it blew a six-point lead with 15 minutes remaining. With or without Matthews, Michigan needed a response in the worst way.
“We had a bad taste in our mouths,” Teske said. “We wanted to come out defensively, just shut them down and offensively, knock down open shots.”
The Wolverines did that from the start. Livers, who replaced Matthews in the starting lineup, nailed his first three just two minutes into the game. Teske — who didn’t attempt a three in practice the last two days, per Beilein — hit from the left wing on the next trip down the court, and Michigan was up, 8-2, and off and running.
When a team loses a rivalry game in the fashion the Wolverines did Sunday, bouncing back is the obvious storyline. That kind of mental response is intangible. What isn’t, though, was Michigan’s extreme height advantage over the Cornhuskers, who play only one player taller than 6-foot-8.
Teske (22 points and 10 rebounds) and Castleton (11 points in nine minutes) stand 7-foot-1 and 6-foot-11, respectively. Nebraska didn’t have an answer, as the Wolverines had no trouble in finding their big men down low — and occasionally, on the perimeter, where Teske hit all three of his 3-pointers.
“We knew if we go harder off the screen that they were gonna switch,” Livers said. “So when we see that you got a 7-footer and a 6-foot-10 guy with long arms, they know how to keep the ball above their head, that’s an easy assist and easy bucket. It was great to see that they were playing big today instead of just playing small.”
That performance was quietly engineered by Michigan’s backcourt. Nothing junior Zavier Simpson or sophomore Jordan Poole did was electrifying — save for Poole’s out-of-nowhere tomahawk dunk in the second half.
But in a way, that was the point. Simpson and Poole’s job was simple: find the open man — usually a big man — and keep the ball moving. With just six shot attempts, but 15 assists combined between them, they did just that.
“They didn’t have to shoot the ball to make us win,” Beilein said. “The ball moved. Yesterday in practice, we could see the ball move. Didn’t stick like it has in some games. That’s how you score 80 points.”
As for the mental response?
“Maybe we’re playing more relaxed as well,” Beilein said. “After we got beat the other day, I think people just say, ‘OK, we learned a great lesson, let’s just go out there and take the next right shot and don’t worry about it. Don’t press to try and show anything, just make the next right play.’ ”
It’s been a theme this year, according to players and coaches — Michigan plays its best basketball when it plays freely and without tension. And as the Cornhuskers were reminded, the Wolverines are quite good when they play their best basketball.
“If they’re gonna play for a conference championship, you can’t lose at home,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “Certainly can’t lose at home to a 10th place team. … I think that just (Michigan) making shots early deflated our guys some. But hey, this is not a league where you can feel sorry for yourself.”
After Sunday’s loss, the Wolverines didn’t.