LOS ANGELES — The final outcome of Michigan’s 99-72 demolition of Texas A&M had been decided long before Coach John Beilein turned and pointed to freshman walk-on C.J. Baird to come into the game with 41 seconds remaining.
Baird, though, was determined to leave his imprint on the proceedings.
“Every walk-on wants to go in there and shoot it, especially in the Sweet 16,” Baird would later say, accompanied by an ear-to-ear grin. “I told Ibi Watson, ‘If you give me the ball, I’m going to shoot it.’
“And he said, ‘Okay, do it then.’ ”
Baird didn’t waste any time following through on his promise.
Ten seconds after checking into the game, Baird found himself with the ball at the top of the key, standing 30 feet from the basket inside Staples Center. After taking a second — in which he seemingly decided to follow through on his prior declaration — Baird let it fly with a shot from well beyond the NBA three-point arc.
In keeping with how Michigan played throughout the game, Baird’s shot found nothing but the bottom of the net. The basket set an NCAA tournament record by giving Michigan eight players who hit a three-pointer in one game, but that wasn’t why he went flying down court in a rapturous celebration — one that was matched by the rest of Michigan’s bench, and the heavily partisan crowd in attendance here.
It all was a fitting exclamation point on a night that belonged to the Wolverines from start to finish, and sent them on to the Elite Eight for the third time in six years.
“It’s every kid’s dream to play in the NCAA tournament,” Baird said. “And when you watch it for so many years like that … I never thought I’d get to do this. When I shot it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, go in!’ Then I stepped back and it went in. I got shivers down my whole body, and I just couldn’t hold my emotions. It is one of the best feelings in my life.”
Even more remarkable than the fact Baird made the shot was that he was in position to take it to begin with. A lifelong Michigan fan — his mother and uncles all attended the school — who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Novi, Baird thought his basketball career was over when he graduated from Detroit Catholic Central last summer.
While he had a decorated high school career and options to play locally at the Division III level, Baird was focused on going to Michigan for academic reasons. He is in the business school and pursuing a career in corporate finance.
“You won’t be seeing me in the NBA or anything like that,” Baird said with a laugh, adding his goal is to remain living and working in the Detroit area after college. “I’m perfectly okay with that.”
But his high school coach, Bill Dyer, had other plans. He’d gotten in touch with Beilein’s former director of basketball operations, Waleed Samaha, who left the program last summer. Before he did, though, Samaha invited Baird to try out for the team.
Initially, Baird was told there wasn’t a roster opening, and was asked if he’d like to be a manager instead. Baird agreed, and was thrilled with the arrangement.
“I was perfectly content with that,” he said. “I got to be part of the practices, and kind of see what happened.
But then, in mid-October, another player on the team quit for academic reasons, and Michigan held an open tryout to fill the spot. Baird decided he wasn’t content with being a manager, and chose to try out again.
“I thought I had a good chance of making it and it was definitely a calling card for me that I really wanted to do this, I wanted to keep pursuing basketball,” he said.
The coaching staff agreed, and he was soon added to the team as a walk-on.
Throughout the regular season, he’d only gotten into a pair of games. He played four minutes at home against UC Riverside, recording one assist and one turnover. In his other appearance, on Dec. 21 against Alabama A&M, he made his first basket — a layup — but missed a three-pointer that would’ve gotten Michigan to 100 points on the night.
“C.J. gives us fits in practice,” Beilein said. “He can really shoot it.”
When he got another opportunity Thursday night, he didn’t miss, and virtually everyone he’d ever met let him know about it.
“Oh, [my phone] blew up,” he said with a laugh. “My parents’ 25th anniversary is coming up, and they couldn’t be here because they’re going to Italy. I got so many texts from them. All my family, all my friends … I got a bunch of calls, bunch of tweets. I’m going to have to go through all of that.
“It’s all worth it in the end. I get to go to the Elite Eight, and experience one of the greatest sporting events in the country.”
Entering Thursday’s game, Baird was only focused on his role on the scout team. His responsibility? To try to emulate Robert Williams, Texas A&M’s star big man, a potential top 10 pick in this year’s NBA Draft (who, as an aside, wasted no time declaring he was done with his time in college immediately after Thursday’s loss).
“Oh my gosh,” he said, laughing. “That’s not going to happen.”
Then again, no one on the scout team is ever going to emulate the starters for another team, let alone a future NBA Draft pick. Instead, the goal is to mimic their tendencies, so the other team knows what to look for.
“We’re supposed to emulate that, even if we can’t emulate their size and athleticism, so they know how to defend it, so they can expect the separation and athleticism but they know what they’re going to do,” he said. “That’s one of the best things Coach Beilein has taught us, how important the scout team is to every game.”
It’s hard to say the scout team had much to do with the way Michigan played Thursday, hitting 14 of 24 attempts from three-point range and shooting 61.9 percent overall.
But the enduring image of this game will be of Baird hitting that shot, and his teammates celebrating it, on a night where seemingly everything Michigan threw at the basket went in.
“That was, by far, the coolest shot of my career that I’ve ever made,” Baird said.
“This takes the cake.”
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