Evanston, Ill. — The road is revealing, especially in the Big Ten.
At this time last season, Michigan traveled to Ohio State for a conference matchup and it uncovered one of Michigan coach John Beilein’s concerns — when there’s a fire, who is going to step up and put it out?
The Wolverines couldn’t come up with an answer — or a basket — when it desperately needed to, and instead fanned the flames as they blew a 20-point lead.
Exactly one year to date, Michigan found itself in a comparable situation Tuesday at Northwestern, with a 15-point second-half lead slowly succumbing and the game on the verge of slipping away.
This time, the Wolverines had a solution and a stopper in the form of freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who scored a team-high 23 points and delivered time and again when the going got tough in Michigan’s 62-60 win.
When Northwestern started its 15-2 second-half run with seven straight points, it was Brazdeikis who muscled his way to the basket for a layup to momentarily stem the tide and hush the Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd.
When the Wildcats finished their spurt and managed to pull within two, it was Brazdeikis again who wouldn’t be denied and willed his way to the rim to give the Wolverines a six-point lead.
When Northwestern ripped off nine straight points to take a three-point lead — its first of the game — and Michigan had gone roughly six minutes without scoring a single point, it was Brazdeikis who kicked into survival mode and drained a momentum-killing 3-pointer to knot it at 54.
Then during the back-and-forth finish that featured four lead changes in the final five minutes, Brazdeikis quickly countered a Vic Law layup that gave Northwestern a one-point lead 17 seconds later by getting in the lane, drawing a hard foul and splitting two free throws to tie it.
Of Michigan’s 26 points in the final 20 minutes, Brazdeikis was responsible for half of them.
"I mean, he gives us buckets when we can't get one sometimes,” Beilein said. “He's still going to hunt some bad looks…He makes such obvious freshman mistakes sometimes. He missed a curl we were going to switch (on defense). Then, all of a sudden, he'll just go get you a bucket or get knocked down and make one of the two free throws. That was pretty big and the big 3 he hit.”
And that doesn’t even include the first half. After Northwestern cut a 10-point deficit down to three in less than two minutes, Brazdeikis responded with a right-handed floater followed by a fallaway baseline jumper on back-to-back possessions.
He couldn’t even be slowed down by an elbow in the back that brought him to his knees, halted play and kept him on the sidelines for a brief stretch late in the first half.
“I just love his spirit,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “He’s a warrior, he's tough. He makes shots, he gets to the basket, he competes. He's a really fun guy to watch play.”
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole is no stranger to hitting clutch shots. He noted Tuesday’s matchup was “situational” and with the way Northwestern was defending, Brazdeikis was able to continuously take advantage of his one-on-one matchups.
And as far as being unfazed by any moment and situation, Poole said it’s a trait everyone, including Brazdeikis, has shown in practice.
“We know he that has game and he can play,” Poole said. “We have confidence that everybody on the court can hit a shot…We're built to knock to down big shots and Iggy was able to hit a couple down the stretch.”
So far this season, Brazdeikis has shown an ability to deliver when the Wolverines need it most. When Michigan faced a 10-point deficit early on against North Carolina, it was Brazdeikis who completely flipped the game with 10 points during a 19-4 run.
“I'm just a confident and aggressive player,” said Brazdeikis, who has scored at least 20 points in four of the last five games. “I don't shy away from these moments and neither do my teammates. We all expect to succeed.
“I just do whatever it takes to win. That's the most important thing for me. If that means me being aggressive and attacking, then that's what I'm going to do.”
It’s a desire, a burden and a responsibility Brazdeikis isn't afraid to put on himself, and Beilein wouldn't expect it any other way.
“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.
“That's who he is and that's why we love him.”