FORT WAYNE – This could be the deepest, most talented team the Mad Ants have had since their inception in 2007. But that doesn’t always make it easy on coach Conner Henry.
On Saturday night, he had to get his newest arrival, the Indiana Pacers’ Orlando Johnson, into the starting lineup, and that meant that Tony R. Mitchell and the Detroit Pistons’ Peyton Siva would come off the bench.
It took some time, and the Mad Ants had to erase a 16-point second-quarter deficit, but they defeated the Sioux Falls Skyforce 93-81 at Memorial Coliseum.
Mitchell scored 20 points on 8-of-18 shooting to lead the Mad Ants. He also had six rebounds.
“I want to give a lot of credit to Peyton,” Henry said.
“I went to him yesterday, and I think we’re better as a second group maybe with Peyton, Tony and Sadiel Rojas. (Coming off the bench) frees up Sadiel to do what he’s good at – read off everyone else and play with a high level of energy – and it also gives more freedom to Tony at the offensive end, which is his strength.
“That second group was able to sit and see the flow of the game and then come in with fresher legs.”
The Mad Ants (17-12) have won 11 of 16 games, but they were coming off a 97-95 road loss to lowly Erie on Wednesday and had dropped their two previous games to the Skyforce.
Things didn’t look good early, as the Skyforce (17-11) built a 37-21 lead with 9:19 remaining in the second quarter.
It came together for Fort Wayne with a 38-20 run in the second and third quarters, which culminated with a Ron Howard 3-pointer from the corner for a 59-57 lead with 6:14 left in the third quarter. On their next possession, the Mad Ants’ Chris Porter fought through a crowd to put back a Johnson miss for a 61-57 lead.
Johnson spent four games with the Mad Ants last season as a rookie, averaging 23.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
In 36 games this season with the Pacers, he averaged 2.5 points and 9.4 minutes per game. On Saturday, he had 13 points and eight rebounds.
“I started getting more comfortable and the guys who were out there, we just got on a run,” said Johnson, who made 6 of 18 shots.
“We really locked in on defense and made it a point of emphasis to not give them anymore easy baskets.”
By the time Mitchell drove through the lane and scooped the ball in with 6:36 left in the game, the Mad Ants had built a 12-point lead at 82-70 lead. A Johnson pass into the paint for the other Tony Mitchell – a Pistons prospect – led to a layup to make it 87-74 to put it out of reach with 2:48 left.
Howard, an All-Star, had 12 points. The Pistons’ Mitchell had 12 points and 14 rebounds. Rojas had 10 points and eight rebounds. Siva had eight points.
The Mad Ants expect to have Johnson two more games. The Pistons’ Siva and Tony Mitchell should have three more games with Fort Wayne, which plays today at Canton.
Sioux Falls was paced by Henry Walker’s 15 points.