Nick Ward brings it home in MSU road win over Ohio State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — Nick Ward’s been here before, on a court just minutes from his childhood home, all eyes on him, family in the stands with 18,000-plus screaming and hoping the local kid spends the afternoon fumbling away the ball and talking to himself in frustration.

That’s pretty much how Ward’s first two trips went in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Michigan State. In 2017, the native of nearby Gahanna, Ohio, let his emotion get the best of him while last year, with the Spartans ranked No. 1 in the nation, Ward took and only one shot in 26 minutes as the Spartans got run off the court in the second half.

But as No. 8 Michigan State took the floor Saturday afternoon at Value City Arena to take on No. 14 Ohio State in a huge early Big Ten showdown, a different Nick Ward stepped onto the court. As he said earlier in the week, this was just another game.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 86, Ohio State 77

Well, one that happened to net him some home cooking from mom.

“This is a game he holds dear to his heart,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “This year he looked like he was on a mission. No matter what, it wasn’t gonna happen like (last year). Win or lose, he was gonna do his thing and put the team in the best situation to win the game.”

Ward did exactly that, scoring 21 points on 5-for-7 shooting while going 11-for-14 from the free-throw line and grabbing eight rebounds to lead Michigan State to an 86-77 victory over Ohio State. He scored 16 in the first half as the Buckeyes flirted with blowing the game open.

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Winston was huge, too, scoring 25 with 18 coming in the second half as the Spartans (13-2, 4-0 Big Ten) erased a nine-point Ohio State lead. Kyle Ahrens, from Versailles, Ohio, about 100 miles away, came up big, too, with two critical baskets late in the game while Matt McQuaid pitched in 12 points.

But it was the focused Ward that was at the core of Michigan State’s victory.

“My teammates and coaches really helped me stay composed during the game and before the game,” Ward said. “I didn’t get too hyped up and didn’t get too low. I thank them for that. They knew how big of a game this was for me and they kept me nice and mellow.”

Maybe not mellow considering Ward was going toe-to-toe with Ohio State sophomore Kaleb Wesson, a 270-pounder that finished with 25 points. But Ward get the better end of the battle as Wesson fouled out late and scored just seven points in the second half.

It was a battle the two Ohio natives have had dating back to middle school.

“He’s a big guy and he’s got me by like 40 pounds,” Ward said. “That’s tough when a guy is backing you in. I’m not 250, 260 anymore. He’s a hell of a player.”

By late in the first half, Wesson and the Buckeyes were playing out a familiar scene.

In last season’s matchup, the game was tied before the Buckeyes closed the half on a 12-0 run on their way to a blowout win over the Spartans. This time, Michigan State led most of the way only to fall apart in the final two minutes, watching a three-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit. It looked like a familiar Columbus collapse in the final 3:30 as Ohio State took advantage of a couple of Spartans turnovers and went on a 10-0 run to take a 38-31 lead with 1:44 to play.

Michigan State trimmed the deficit to 40-36 after a 3-pointer from Ahrens with 40 seconds left in the half, but Wesson hit a 3-pointer to give the Buckeyes a 43-36 lead at the break.

“I thought our experience helped a little bit in the second half,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But I was very disappointed in the first half. Defensively, I thought we were a joke. We just did not cover. Loose balls and long rebounds, they got everything and that is intolerable for me.”

But after challenging his players, namely Winston, at halftime, the Spartans responded.

They used a 9-0 run to retake the lead at 51-50 with just less than 15 minutes to play after a 3-pointer from Aaron Henry. It was back and forth until Michigan State scored six straight to take a 64-59 lead with nine minutes to play. But Ohio State responded by scoring the next five to tie the game.

The seesaw matchup continued from there until Michigan State went up, 75-72, with 3:39 to play on a layup from Kenny Goins on a dish from Henry. The Spartans pushed the lead to five on a put-back from Ahrens then got two free throws from Henry. From there, Michigan State put the game away at the free-throw line, finishing 30-for-37.

In addition to Wesson’s 25, Luther Muhammad scored 12 while Andre Wesson, Duane Washington and C.J. Jackson scored 10 each for Ohio State (12-2, 2-1).

 “It certainly is a big win,” Izzo said. “In the huddles we talked about finishing, finishing, finishing. That was really critical. The good news is we’ve got a lot of work to do to be better and get good enough to be real contender for something here. You do that, and struggle but still win, there’s a lot of teaching moments.”

None more valuable than what a focused Nick Ward can bring.

“I’m really starting to like my guy,” Izzo said. “He’s listening, he’s getting better, he’s staying focused on the task at hand and what he’s got to do. I love Wesson, but I love Nick Ward a little more.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau