This is not how Mathias Ward envisioned his Montana basketball career ending.
When Ward was introduced for senior night last week, he was dressed in a shirt and tie, not in a jersey with his familiar No. 40. The 6-foot-7 fifth-year senior made his way onto the Dahlberg Arena floor with the help of crutches after having season-ending foot surgery three days prior. The Grizzlies’ leading scorer was not on the floor when his team wrapped up its second straight Big Sky Conference regular-season title.
“It rips your heart out, as much as he’s meant to our program, our community and our university,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. “He’s such a well-developed young man that to take (basketball) out of the mix, you feel for him. You know how much it means to him. You look at what our program’s done over his time here and he’s a big part of that. As a coach and a staff that really invests itself in these individuals, it hurts. You know it’s a big piece taken away from him.”
What the program has done in Ward’s time here is win more games (91) in a four-year stretch than any other Griz teams, making Ward and fellow senior Will Cherry the winningest Grizzlies ever. Ward has been to the NCAA tournament in two of the last three seasons and has helped bring the Big Sky postseason tournament to Missoula for the last two years.
Ward has not played since injuring his left foot in a game at Idaho State on Feb. 16. At first, the injury appeared to be a sprained arch, but further tests revealed a problem that only surgery would solve.
“It was tough how things progressed because I thought I was going to be able to come back and play,” Ward said. “Then with the last test it was something that was going to end my career. That was tough to deal with at first, but I always figure that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. There’s nothing I can do to change it so I need to move forward and continue to enjoy my last year here.”
Leave it to Ward to sum up life’s obstacles in the form of a numeric equation.
Ward came to the Griz from Gig Harbor, Wash., where he once scored 56 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in a high school game against Central Kitsap.
“I was the biggest kid on my team in high school and played the five,” Ward said. “I shot it a little more my senior year, but that was my deal, I would just get rebounds and score.”
But as Ward began to draw attention from Division I college programs, mostly in the Big Sky, his AAU coach advised him to develop his perimeter skills. At 6-7, he wouldn’t be the biggest guy on his team anymore.
“My sophomore summer we did a tournament at the Gonzaga team camp,” Ward said. “After that he said some coaches had asked him about me and he said if I wanted to play at the Division I level I’d need to develop an outside jumper and my perimeter defense. That was when it started.
“He worked with me a lot on transition shooting drills, conditioning and shooting together because when you get tired, your shot goes.”
The transition continued after Ward chose the Griz over offers from Weber State and Portland State. As a redshirt freshman, Ward averaged 2.9 points a game; as a sophomore, 4.5. After becoming a starter as a junior, his production increased to 10.9 ppg while shooting 53 percent from 3-point range. While starting the first 24 games of this season, Ward was averaging 14.8 ppg while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and 51 percent overall.
“He’s a typical, undersized post,” Tinkle said. “Against smaller guys, he can take them into the paint, like he was used to. Against bigger guys, he’s developed into a great pick-and-pop, face-the-basket kind of guy. I think he learned a lot from (former Griz) Derek Selvig.
“We had a certain coach on staff that used to cringe whenever Mathias took a jump shot in practice or the games. I would just look at Mathias and walk by him and mumble, ‘As long as you’re not hearing that from me, keep shooting.’ He put the time in and became a great inside-out threat for us. ... Give him credit for dedicating himself, listening and taking coaching and working hard to improve over his five years.”
More than his personal success, it’s those 91 wins and two trips to the NCAA tournament – with the possibility of a third – that mean the most to Ward.
“I think it means a lot in terms of the hard work Will and I have put in,” he said. “I think practices have gotten easier as the years have gone on and I don’t think a lot of the guys realize that. When I was a freshman we used to go at 5:30 in the morning for a couple of weeks; we don’t do that anymore so some of the guys are a little more soft now. It’s been good to have all that hard work pay off in the end. The sophomore class now will have a chance to win more games than that, so it will probably be a short tenure, but it’s nice to be a part of that, especially with someone like Will.”
But what Ward has accomplished on the court pales in comparison to what he’s achieved off of it.
By the time Ward arrived in Missoula, he already had an associate’s degree from Tacoma Community College thanks to a program called “Running Start.”
“My two older brothers did it so my parents kind of forced it on me,” Ward said. “I didn’t want to do it at first, but it ended up being a really good thing for me. You go to community college your last two years and you don’t even go to high school, but you get college and high school credit for it. When I came over here I had all my general ed requirements done and had two years pretty much finished.”
Since then, Ward has received his bachelor’s in finance, then zipped through the MBA program in one year. He’s currently working on a second master’s degree in accounting.
“That would be another year if I finished that, but I’m not going to finish it,” Ward said.
His work in the classroom and on the court landed him on the elite, 15-player Academic All-America team this season.
“I obviously like the Big Sky championships more, because that speaks to a team effort,” Ward said. “I was really glad that I was able to be an academic All-American this year and blessed too because there are only 15 guys who are on that team. It was something I was working toward and wasn’t sure I’d get, but it feels good to get that one.”
Lest you think Ward spent his entire college career either in the library or on the basketball court, you should know Ward was also involved with Athletes in Action – “an on-campus Bible study for athletes that I’ve enjoyed being a part of for the last five years” – and attended Zootown Church regularly.
“I go to church here and obviously religion is a big part of my life, and everything God’s blessed me with is the centerpiece of my life,” Ward said.
“If we could legally make a poster boy for Grizzly basketball, it would be someone like Mathias,” Tinkle said. “He’s done it in the classroom, on the court and in the community.”
Ward is recognizable for his trademark beard, something he and Derek Selvig had fun with last season. It was a look that prompted one writer to declare that the Griz must be the only team in America to start three African-Americans and two Amish guys.
In a game at Weber State this season as Ward was on his way to scoring 18 points, one Weber fan yelled, “Will someone guard Lincoln!”
“I just figured I have to go get a real job here soon so I wanted to let it grow as long as I could until I have to go do that,” Ward said.
That might occur this summer, when Ward has an eight-week internship with a West Coast accounting firm. But that’s as far ahead as Ward has planned.
“I’m hoping to maybe play overseas next year,” he said. “I think it would be kind of tough to end my basketball career by getting hurt and never playing again.”
Five years, 91 wins, 933 points and two Big Sky championships after first visiting the UM campus, Ward is confident he made a good choice.
“I told coach on senior night that I thought that I made the right decision,” Ward said. “It’s a big decision and you don’t know at 18 exactly what you’re looking for. It’s been a really good choice for me. As far as how the team’s doing, it’s a great opportunity for Will and I to get a third championship ring and be able to move forward. The bonds I’ve created with the guys have been special to me.”