FORT WAYNE – So the cramped bus trips and the half-empty arenas and the morning practices and airport layovers all boil down to this for the Mad Ants: Two games on the road for one spot in the NBA Development League playoffs.
The Mad Ants (26-22) close their 50-game regular season tonight and Saturday with 8 p.m. games at Sioux Falls and Tulsa, with the franchise’s first playoff berth at stake.
Basically, the Sioux Falls game is a playoff game, Ants coach Duane Ticknor said. That’s the way we look at it. If we beat them, then we’re in.
Six teams, including the Ants, are within a game and a half of one another for the bottom four berths in the eight-team playoffs.
Austin (26-21) has the No. 5 slot, Fort Wayne (26-22) is No. 6, Tulsa (26-22) is No. 7, and Sioux Falls (25-23) holds the tiebreaker over Maine and Erie, which also have 25-23 records.
The first-round pairings will be announced Sunday.
It’s a goal we started since I’ve been here, and we’re taking small steps at a time, reserve forward Chris Porter said. We’ve got two more games, and one more (win) would give us a sure spot in the playoffs.
We come to work every day; we come to play hard. We’ve got a great group of guys here who love the game of basketball. We play together and we stay together.
The Ants have overcome considerable adversity to get to this point.
They began the season 3-10. Their first-round draft pick, former Purdue standout JaJuan Johnson, wasn’t as effective as hoped and was traded. The franchise’s career-leading assist man, Walker Russell Jr., was also traded to get 6-foot-9 forward Anthony Richardson. Former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody arrived and provided a spark that helped the Ants to a franchise-best eight-game winning streak, but Harangody shut down his season in early March, complaining of a sore knee. Most recently, point guard Ron Howard suffered a slight wrist fracture and has not played since March 21.
We have a great group of guys, assistant coach Steve Gansey said. We have a lot of veterans. Brandon’s (Wallace) been in the playoffs, Terrence (Thomas) has been in the playoffs. Chris Porter has won championships, and then there’s a couple of other guys. Anthony Richardson has been in the playoffs. So those guys have already witnessed and experienced that. And it’s huge for some of the other guys, like Sadiel (Rojas) and Tony (Mitchell), that haven’t been in that situation. The main thing is our veteran players who’ve been there. It’s not like we have a lot of rookies who’ve never been there.
Ticknor, in his first season with the Ants, likes his team’s experience and old-style play.
We kind of play old-time, YMCA basketball, old school, Ticknor said. The Chris Porters and Terrance Thomases and those guys really know how to play, and they seem to make the old-man plays that really count when we need them.