The season before Nick Ward signed to play for the Michigan State men’s basketball team in November 2015, the Spartans made their seventh Final Four appearance under coach Tom Izzo.

Ward, a 2016 Gahanna Lincoln High School graduate who immediately became a member of Michigan State’s rotation after joining the program for the 2016-17 season, is now getting to experience what it’s like to be in the Final Four after helping the Spartans reach that level this season.

The Spartans are 32-6 and will play Texas Tech at 8:49 p.m. April 6 in Minneapolis, with the winner to play Auburn or Virginia for the championship April 8.

Ward, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound junior forward, started 25 games before missing the final five games of the regular season with a broken left hand. Since returning from the injury, he has been serving as one of the first players off the bench.

“I don’t even know how to feel right now,” Ward said on Michigan State’s website. “I’m just excited to get to Minneapolis and get the job done against Texas Tech.”

Ward is the third player from Gahanna to reach the Final Four in the last decade.

Rob Brandenberg, a 2010 graduate, helped Virginia Commonwealth reach the Final Four in 2011. That season, Brandenberg averaged 4.9 points off the bench to help the Rams become the third No. 11 seed in tournament history to advance to the Final Four before losing to Butler in a semifinal.

Javon Bess, a 2014 Gahanna graduate, played 12 games during the regular season for Michigan State when it made its previous Final Four appearance in 2015 but was injured during the postseason. He transferred to Saint Louis after the 2015-16 season and helped the Billikens reach the NCAA tournament this season.

“Our Gahanna basketball program, school and community should be very proud of Nick and his accomplishments,” said Tony Staib, who recently completed his 17th season as Lions coach. “Making the Final Four is a lifetime memory, and to be such an integral part of the team’s success all season long makes it even better. Missing several (games) with hand surgery was a big setback (for Ward), but he has persevered and finished the season strong.

“Nick’s will to succeed and competitive spirit have helped him get better every year and improve to become an all-Big Ten player.”

Ward averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 points as a freshman in 2016-17 and 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds last season. He is averaging 13.2 points and 6.1 rebounds this season.

With about seven minutes left in the Spartans’ 80-63 victory over LSU in an East Region semifinal March 29, Ward fell awkwardly on his left hand while going for a rebound and writhed in pain. He was taken for X-rays, which were negative, and was diagnosed with a bone bruise.

Ward returned to action the next game, playing 13 minutes in Michigan State’s 68-67 victory over Duke in the East Region final March 31. The Blue Devils were the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, while the Spartans were the second seed in the East Region.

“We just stuck to what (Izzo) said and that was a huge part of our game plan,” Ward said on Michigan State’s website. “(Duke) was a big boulder in our way. They were a No. 1 seed and they probably have the modern day most athletic player we’ve seen in a while (in Zion Williamson), but it was huge knocking them off and getting them out of the way.”

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek