It's been a long road to get here. Seven regular seasons have been played, most of which the Mad Ants have resided in or near the cellar of the D-League. Only once before this season had they gone to the playoffs, bowing out in the first round of 2013.
But now the Mad Ants are irrefutably the team to beat in the D-League.
On Friday, they defeated the Los Angeles D-Fenders 129-128 in a drama- and controversy-filled double-overtime regular-season finale that clinched them the regular-season title and the top seed in the upcoming playoffs.
"That was a true test there. That's one of the best teams in the league, no doubt about it," said Ron Howard, after his Mad Ants squandered a 33-point lead. "They didn't let up. They've got a great coaching staff and pushed us to the edge. But we did a wonderful job of responding and staying together as a team. There were a couple moments where we could have given up, and so could they have."
A 3-pointer from Fort Wayne's Ramon Harris with 8.9 seconds left in double overtime fell short, setting up a scrap on the floor in which Howard and Sadiel Rojas shoved the ball to Matt Bouldin for a layup and a 129-128 lead.
Los Angeles' Terrence Williams attempted a long-range fall-away jumper from just inside the 3-point arc and teammate C.J. Williams tipped in the rebound at the buzzer. It was initially ruled good but overturned by the officials – Dedric Taylor, Sir Allen Conner and William Mensah – after video replay and confetti rained down from the Memorial Coliseum ceiling.
The D-Fenders may protest the game because James Southerland fouled out in the first overtime, even though Los Angeles believed he only had five fouls. The Mad Ants won a similar challenge earlier in the season and some of the game had to be replayed.
The Mad Ants (34-16) came into the night needing to win or for Los Angeles (31-18) to lose tonight to get the top seed. They were led by Rojas' 27 points and 12 rebounds, while Howard had 23 points and eight assists. Tim Ohlbrecht added 21 points.
The Mad Ants, who have won 17 of their last 20 games, and six in a row, had never won more than 27 games in a season before Conner Henry became coach last fall. On Sunday, the Mad Ants will select their opponent for the first-round best-of-three series from seeds 4 through 8. That series will begin on the road, likely in the middle of this week.
The D-Fenders came into the night on a four-game winning streak and averaging 122 points per game, second most in the league and 13 more than Fort Wayne. And Los Angeles hadn't played since Wednesday's 154-136 home victory against Erie.
The Mad Ants had played Thursday, defeating Maine 122-108 at the Coliseum, and they scored 20 of the first 28 points and led 73-41 at halftime.
"That beginning of the game, I'd never seen us like that. We were locked in and everything was going well for us," Henry said.
"All of a sudden, though, your legs get a little tired and guys start to get a few of those blank looks on their faces because fatigue sets in. Then it's hard to concentrate. It's hard to execute. It's hard to grind it. But somehow we found a way."
The Mad Ants were up 110-108 late in regulation before Terrance William blew past Chris Porter at the top of the key for an easy dunk to force overtime with 3.2 seconds left.
In the first overtime, Los Angeles had a 120-116 lead before a Rojas layup and two Tim Ohlbrecht free throws with two-tenths of a second remaining, after the officials had a length discussion and determined he had been fouled by Andre Ingram.