PORTLAND, Ore. – It took a trip of nearly 2,400 miles to get a pair of Central Ohio boys on the same court.
In the championship game of the Victory Bracket in the PK80 Invitational, No. 4 Michigan State squared off against the reigning national champion, No. 9 North Carolina. Wearing the Spartan green was sophomore forward Nick Ward, product of Gahanna. Opposite him in Tar Heel blue was freshman center Sterling Manley, product of Pickerington Central.
Michigan State won big, 63-45, as North Carolina endured the worst-shooting game in program history. But for Ward and Manley, it was also a chance to show off their hometowns.
“It’s always a great experience playing against another Ohio native,” Ward told The Dispatch. “We played against each other in high school so I kind of knew his tendencies and stuff like that. He played a great game.”
Ward started the game for the Spartans and heard his hometown mispronounced during his pregame introduction. Manley was part of coach Roy Williams’ first substitutions roughly four minutes into the game but the two weren’t on the court together until 8:09 remained in the first half when Ward checked back into the game. They didn’t guard each other or have any contact with each other before Manley, playing with two fouls checked out with 6:39 remaining.
At the half, Ward had five points and four rebounds in 10 minutes and Manley had the two fouls in five minutes.
“It’s definitely good, showing two Columbus guys representing at two good D-I schools,” Manley told The Dispatch. “Going up against him, we were rivals in high school and it still continues to this day. When I was younger he got the better of me but as I got older, sometimes I won the battle as well.”
The two got their most extended run of play against each other near the midpoint of the second half with Michigan State comfortably ahead. After they both checked in at the 13:16 mark, each forced the other into a miss underneath the basket before Ward exited with 8:58 to play. Manley fouled Ward once, too, when he bounced off the sophomore’s frame, lost his footing and nearly inadvertently tackled an official in the process.
“I think he was in foul trouble, but for the times we did go against each other, it was just like high school,” Ward said. “He’s a great player. He was always big. It was kind of difficult to score on him because he’s 7-foot, but he played good (in high school).”
Ward finished with seven points and game-high marks with eight rebounds and four blocks in 20 minutes. Manley missed two shots and had one rebound in 10 minutes.
After averaging 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds as a senior for Central, Manley entered Sunday’s game averaging 8.2 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Tar Heels. Those figures were good for fifth and second on the ream, respectively, despite having played half the minutes of the other top five scorers. He had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds against Bucknell, giving him the most rebounds for a player in 17 minutes of action in Roy Williams’ 15-year career at North Carolina.
“I’ve just been trying to work hard,” Manley said. “That’s all. I think I played more at the beginning and now I’m hitting a little wall, I guess you could say. Just trying to positive, trying to stay consistent and give the team what they need. If they need rebounds, I’ll try to get them rebounds. If they need defensive stops, I’ll try to get them defensive stops. I’m just trying to do what I can for the team.”
Ward, too, entered the game with one double-double when he had 22 points and 11 rebounds in a win against Stony Brook, which is coached by former Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals. Through the first five games, Ward was averaging 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds after breaking out for 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds as a freshman for the Spartans last season.
A third Central Ohio big man, center Kaleb Wesson, is a freshman at Ohio State, which played in the other bracket of the tournament. Manley said he enjoyed getting to catch up with Wesson, whom he called one of his good buddies, at a pre-tournament banquet Wednesday night. Ward was less effusive, only stating that the two know each other.
Neither player in Sunday night’s championship game obviously plays for the Buckeyes. Ward was offered but had already built a strong relationship with the Michigan State coaching staff while Manley was not offered because Wesson was already committed for the class and three other big men were projected to be on the roster.
“It’s God’s plan,” Ward said of his situation. “If God wanted me at Ohio State I’d have been there, but God wanted to put me here and put me in the best position to be successful.”