Niyo: Spartans' Ward gives Hawkeyes his best shots
East Lansing — Nick Ward couldn’t miss. Iowa couldn’t make.
That’d be enough, really, to explain what happened Monday night at Breslin Center, where No. 10 Michigan State demolished No. 18 Iowa, 90-68, to improve to 2-0 in Big Ten play.
There was more to it than that, obviously, as the Spartans displayed the kind of offensive efficiency head coach Tom Izzo has been pleading for over the first month of this season. His team committed just four turnovers in the first 36 minutes of the game, and Michigan State finished with 28 assists on its 31 field goals, a ratio Izzo called “unbelievable” afterward. The Spartans also harassed the Hawkeyes into a miserable shooting night that included a 1-for-20 drought to start the second half, turning a 10-point lead into a 30-point rout in the process.
And that this all came at the end of a brutal stretch of the schedule was probably what had Izzo feeling most relieved, promising his team a much-needed day of rest and then some valuable practice time before it travels for a game at Florida on Saturday.
Still, it was impossible not to acknowledge the play of Ward in the middle of it all Monday. The junior center finished with a career-high 26 points and nine rebounds in 23 minutes on the floor, making all 10 of his field goals.
“I guess 10-for-10, there’s not a lot I can yell at him about,” Izzo joked afterward. “So I gotta give Nick all the credit in the world, although he did miss a few free throws.”
Saved by the foul
But even there, Izzo struggled to be critical. And that’s partly because of the way Ward’s night ended.
Ward last bucket of the night came with 6:05 to play, a two-handed dunk off another assist from Cassius Winston — one of a dozen for Michigan State’s floor leader in the game – that made it 78-50.
Then on Michigan State’s next possession, Ward posted up Iowa’s Luka Garza, took a high-low feed over the top from Kenny Goins and went up for another lay-in, only to watch it bounce of the back of the rim and then the front and then off and into his left hand.
Ward grimaced with a big smile, and Goins, who had a career night of his own with 19 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists — fell to his knees and slapped the floor, acting like a pitcher and catcher who’d just lost a perfect game to a seeing-eye single.
A referee’s whistle saved them, though, as Iowa coach Fran McCaffery’s son, Connor, was called for raking Ward’s arms on the shot attempt.
Ward was still agitated as he stepped to the line and he promptly clanged his first free-throw attempt, which brought a sharp whistle from Izzo on the bench to get his attention. The coach told him simply, “Calm down,” motioning with his hands as he said it. Ward nodded, then sank the next free throw and Izzo pumped his fist from his seat.
Doing his homework
“He’s a different player,” Izzo explained later, when asked to chart the big man’s progress. “He’s focused in 99 percent of the time now. …
“What’s happened with Nick now is last year he was getting ripped and this year he’s getting coached. And really, I haven’t done anything different. It’s just the maturity of him. And I’m proud of what he’s done. Because he’s done it the old-fashioned way. He worked his tail off this summer, he lost more weight, he’s working on his free throws morning, noon and night now.”
And it has been even more noticeable the last two nights out for the Spartans as they began league play with wins at Rutgers and here at home against Iowa, punishing both teams with Ward & Co. dominating in the paint.
Monday, the trio of Ward, Xavier Tillman and Goins combined for 59 points, 31 rebounds and six blocked shots.
And while Goins was quick to admit, “We didn’t really anticipate it to be quite as dominant as it was, really,” it was clear McCaffery was out of answers early on. His attempts to have the Hawkeyes play some zone defense in the first half proved futile as Ward and Tillman took advantage of smaller wing players in the post.
“At that point, it’s just kind of easy buckets,” Goins said.
And looking at Ward’s stat line, it was hard to argue with that. Even for the head coach.