The exclamation point this night came with 2.7 seconds left in the first half, the basketball in the air, Tony Mitchell lifting off from somewhere out toward Auburn.
The ball hit the rim and kicked straight back.
Mitchell, elevating, reached back even farther, corralling it with looked like the skin of his fingertips.
Then he slammed it down one-handed, ending a first half and eventually a game that would need no such all-capital-letters embellishment.
By the time it was done Saturday night in front of 2,812 fans in Memorial Coliseum, five Mad Ants including Mitchell would be in double figures, the Skyforce would be a chalk outline, and the Ants would be off to the D-League finals for the first time in franchise history after closing out Sioux Falls 126-118.
“Feels great,” Mad Ants coach Conner Henry said. “I was telling the fellas, a lot of teams say they want to go to the finals and win it, but they don’t realize what it takes to get to the finals. And we just kept grinding.
“You know, it’s been a month and a half trying to win three-game blocks. That was our goal getting ready for the playoffs. So far we’ve done it.”
In yet another cold-blooded elimination performance, the Ants jetted out to a 20-5 lead, led by 29 at the half, and, after Sioux Falls twice drew to within nine early in the fourth quarter, finally closed the door, shooting 52.8 percent, outrebounding the Skyforce 46-35 and forcing 17 turnovers.
Ron Howard scored 25 points, Matt Bouldin 24, Mitchell 21 and Sadiel Rojas 20 to lead the Ants, who got big plays down the stretch from Howard and Bouldin in particular to keep Sioux Falls from getting close enough to make it uncomfortable.
“As crazy as it sounds, it’s difficult to play with that type of lead,” said Howard, who confirmed the Ants were thinking about the Los Angeles game two weeks ago, when they needed double overtime to pull it out after leading by 32 at the half. “It’s just difficult. We couldn’t make a shot coming into the third quarter. We couldn’t make a shot. We needed someone to break the seal, and I was able to do that, and then Matt got a steal and kind of got us where we needed to be.”
Sioux Falls, meanwhile, exhausted itself digging out – and gave in at times to the accompanying frustration, which accounted for five technical fouls, two ejections (Anthony Mason and Henry Walker, who each drew their second techs in the fourth quarter) and a couple of flagrant fouls.
“We fought so hard to come back, and felt there were a couple tough calls that put us in a tough situation,” said center Craig Smith, who led the Skyforce with 20 points. “Sometimes it’s pretty draining, you know, especially when you fight so hard after you’ve been down pretty much the whole entire first half by double digits.”
Head coach Pat Delany concurred.
“You know, in that third quarter, I thought we did a good job,” he said. “But we exerted so much energy just to get back into it. We just couldn’t get enough late in the game to get over the hump and make it a little tighter for them.”
For the Mad Ants, meanwhile, it’s two best-of-threes, two 2-0 sweeps and one Cleanup On Aisle Three highlight reel skywalk by Mitchell. Plus one ticket punched to the finals, where they’ll await the winner of the Santa Cruz-Rio Grand Valley series, tied 1-1.
“You know everybody asks me, ‘How do you keep it going?’ ” Henry said. “We just will continue to do what we do.”