Nick Ward’s face-plant just a speed bump for Spartans
Detroit — A little more than a minute into the second half on Friday night, the raucous Michigan State crowd grew silent in a heartbeat.
As Cassius Winston tried to throw a lob pass to Nick Ward, the pass sailed high and as Ward tried to grab it, he became tangled with a Bucknell player and tumbled to the ground, hitting his head hard on the court.
The sophomore center laid face down for several minutes as trainers tended to him. However, after a few minutes, the 6-foot-8 Ward hopped to his feet and blinked his watering eyes for a few minutes.
A little more than six minutes later, Ward was back in the game, finishing with eight points and five rebounds in No. 3 Michigan State’s 82-78 win over No. 14 Bucknell in the first round of the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament.
“I feel good,” Ward said after the game, apparently no worse for wear outside of a little swelling near his eye.
He said he wasn’t sure what happened on the play, only that he ended up face-first on the floor.
“I didn’t see it, I just felt it,” Ward said. “I landed on my face really and it’s a little swollen right now, but I’m fine.”
It didn’t take Michigan State coach Tom Izzo long to get Ward back in the game, and Ward was champing at the bit to get off the bench.
“Yeah, I was anxious to get back in,” he said smiling. “But I was fine.”
Winston took most of the blame for throwing the pass that put Ward in a bad spot. He made another poor pass on a lob later in the half that looked like it was going to Ward but Miles Bridges came over the top of his teammate before missing the dunk.
Making better decisions is the key, Winston said.
“Sometimes I get in the habit of trying to make a big play or a home run play, which I got better at, but I’ve got to break that habit,” Winston said. “I tried to make an alley-oop to Miles and one to Nick that almost got him hurt. I’ve got to do a better job just playing smarter, just looking at the situations.”
Michigan State knew the key defensively was slowing Bucknell senior Zach Thomas, the player of the year in the Patriot League.
Fortunately for the Spartans, Thomas took himself out of the game, fouling out with a technical foul with 6:06 to play in the game. Before that, he scored 27 points for the Bison.
“We didn’t defend him,” Izzo said. “What we were going to try to do is not let him drive left. He did that. Not let him shoot 3s. He did that. And not let him get to the free-throw line since he gets there nine times a game, and he got there 11.”
As for the technical foul, Thomas had a hard time explaining what happened after he felt teammate Nana Foulland was fouled.
“I thought he got fouled, but I was backpedaling,” Thomas said. “It was a physical game. I thought he maybe — missed a couple of calls, or got fouled on a couple of others before that.
“I was just backpedaling and I said, ‘What are you watching?’ from about, like, half court. And (the official) was still on the baseline. I didn’t think he was looking at me, but apparently he heard me and he didn’t like it. I shouldn’t have said it, but I mean I didn’t agree with the call. At least warn me or something.”
The crowd at Little Caesars Arena was primarily dressed in green, which was a surprise to no one. The support came in handy, the Spartans said.
“Yeah, our fans, I feel we have the best fan base in the country,” Bridges said. “They really came out and supported us today, and that really helped us when we were down a little bit. When Bucknell was going on the run, our crowd really got us going.”
… The win improves the Spartans’ record to 25-7 in the opening-round game of the NCAA Tournament while coach Tom Izzo is now 16-5 in the round of 64.
… Winston recorded his fifth double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 assists. He now has 235 assists, which is the fourth-best single season mark in MSU history.