EAST LANSING, Mich. — As soon as Nick Ward boarded the plane out of Piscataway, N.J. on Tuesday, his three-point performance and second half benching against Rutgers was already in the rearview mirror.
Ward was benched in the second half of No. 3 Michigan State’s 62-52 win over the Scarlet Knights. MSU coach Tom Izzo cited his body language as the reason for his seat on the bench and not his performance or stats.
“How did Nick Ward respond? Phenomenally. Honest to God. Phenomenally,” Izzo said.
The sophomore came back in a big way on Saturday night in Michigan State’s 88-63 win over Southern Utah at the Breslin Center. Ward finished tied for the team lead in points with 17 on 6-of-10 shooting, pairing that with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
“It’s all about perspective,” Ward said after the game. “I think some people took Tuesday the wrong way. I just had a bad night and that happens.
“My coaches and I have a great relationship. It’s in the past and we just got to move on.”
Through the first 20 minutes of play, Ward had five points on 2-of-6 shooting. Basic math says that Ward would have to make a three-point shot in order to reach that total of five, and make a three is exactly what the 6-foot-8. 245-pound forward did.
Ward got the ball near the Southern Utah bench with three seconds to go on the shot clock late in the half. Realizing there was no available outlet, Ward threw up the first three-point attempt of his college career as time expired. The shot went in, pushing MSU’s lead to 15, and the Breslin Center erupted.
“Everyone thinks I’m mad at Nick, so I told him, ‘What the hell Nick, go ahead and shoot the three.’ And it went in. So that was good, that three we set up for him,” Izzo said.
Players and coaches alike stressed that the situation at Rutgers was perceived differently from those not involved in the inner workings of the program.
Izzo, who hasn’t shied away from the fact that his team is trying to win a championship, said after the game that there is little-to-no margin for error when embarking on a run like Michigan State has the potential to do. That was on the mind of the Spartans as they headed into their Tuesday night matchup with the Scarlet Knights.
“Rutgers would be one of those games you can’t afford to lose,” Izzo said. “They knew that going in. They knew how I felt going in. When I see things real early in the game that lead me to believe that we’re reading our press clippings, until the day I get out of this job, it’s going to get addressed.”
Sophomore guard Cassius Winston, who hit 5-of-6 threes in Saturday’s game, was also quick to point out the difference in perspectives between those involved in the program and those watching on TV or in the stands.
“From the outside looking in, it looked like they could hate each other, but at the end of the day it’s all love,” Winston said. “[Izzo] wants the best out of Nick and Nick wants the best out of himself. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to get better and improve from it, and he showed that tonight and had a better performance.”
Ward was commended for his ability to do what all great players have done and will continue to do, put the past behind and move forward. Bad nights will always be a part of the deal when it comes to being an athlete, no matter what sport. On Saturday night, Ward showed he has the capability to be great not only with his play, but with the mental edge he brings with it.
“He played good and that’s what great players do,” Miles Bridges said of Ward. “They bounce back from bad games or tough adversity. So that just shows what type of player he is. He’s a great player with a great spirit.”
Ward will look to add on to his bounce-back performance next Saturday when the Spartans take on the Oakland Grizzlies at Little Caesars Arena.