SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The Mad Ants dug out of a 10-point hole with less than 5 minutes remaining to stun the Skyforce 113-111 in Game 1 of the D-League semifinals Thursday night at the Sanford Pentagon.
Mad Ants supersub Tony Mitchell scored the game-winner with 4.2 seconds left on an off-balance, contested bank shot over Sioux Falls All-Star DeAndre Liggins – one of the best defenders in the league – to the dismay of 2,701 fans.
Mitchell scored nine points in the final quarter and finished with 19, carrying top-seeded Fort Wayne within one win of a berth in the championship round. The Mad Ants will have two chances to get that victory – both at home. The first is Saturday night.
"I don't really know what it is," Fort Wayne coach Conner Henry said of the comeback. "There's no real explanation for it, but we've been in situations (like this) all year. … We all stick together and focus on getting stops."
To that end, the Mad Ants outscored fourth-seeded Sioux Falls 19-7 over the final 5 minutes. They were down 104-94 when that spurt began; they trailed by 12 earlier in the fourth.
The finish was fitting considering the way the final frame played out. A total of five players were disqualified in the quarter, one by ejection and four by fouling out. The Skyforce lost center Craig Smith – a longtime NBA player – due to a pair of technical fouls and leading scorer Henry Walker, while Fort Wayne had to do without Ron Howard, Tim Ohlbrecht and Sadiel Rojas, who scored a team-high 20 points.
The Mad Ants shrugged off those challenges to win their ninth game in a row. This was as difficult as any considering Sioux Falls had been 21-5 at the Pentagon, its $19 million, first-year home.
"Deflating, obviously," Skyforce coach Pat Delany said. "Really tough loss to have a fourth quarter like that."
There's no telling what would have happened if the game had gone to overtime. Mitchell squashed that idea.
Fort Wayne inbounded with the game tied and about 24 seconds remaining. Mitchell dribbled out most of the clock near halfcourt before driving down the right side of the lane, opting not to kick to Matt Bouldin in the corner and somehow hitting over Liggins, a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2013 NBA playoffs. That finished a run that started with 4:39 remaining on a five-point possession.
"He played very good defense," Mitchell said of Liggins. "I was trying to get it down so I could at least draw two to three people so I could drive and kick. At the last minute they hopped back on their man, so I had to try to do something. I said, 'Put it on the rim; hopefully we can get an offensive tip-in from somebody.' "
Walker paced Sioux Falls with 24 points, while Liggins and reserve A.J. Davis added 19 each.
Fort Wayne put eight players in double figures and shot 55.4 percent from the field against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Just like that, the Mad Ants took control of the series.
"It's always good to get a win on the road," said Mitchell, who scored 49 points in a game at Sioux Falls last season. "But we knew coming in we're going to get everything they have.
"Just like the next game – they're going to give everything. I know they don't want to go home."