The confetti had barely fallen glittering to the Memorial Coliseum floor Saturday night when celebration became contemplation, or at least a brief foray into geography.
From Fort Wayne, the focus for the Mad Ants turned south and west, where Rio Grande Valley was battering Santa Cruz 136-113 to force a deciding third game tonight in the other D-League semifinal in Hidalgo, Texas.
The Mad Ants, having disposed of Sioux Falls in two straight in their semifinal, await the winner. Not that it matters a whit who that is.
We’re gonna continue to approach the game the same way, the way we’ve approached it all season, said Ron Howard, who scored 25 points to lead the Ants to the finals-clinching 126-118 win Saturday night. Stay together. We want to play well on defense and allow our defense to make our offense run.
Across the hall, head coach Conner Henry agreed, noting that the Ants’ approach – take the last part of the season in three-game chunks as preparation for the best-two-of-three playoffs – won’t waver a bit just because the team is in the finals for the first time in franchise history.
We just will continue to do what we do, he said. We’ll just feel good about where we’re at and realize now we’ve got to win two games. And that’s been the whole plan all along, just keep winning two games.
Whether Rio Grande Valley or Santa Cruz, the Ants will open on the road, a circumstance that has been kind to them. A 15-10 road team in the regular season, the Ants came from behind to win Game 1 on the road against both Reno and Sioux Falls, forcing those two teams to potentially face elimination twice in Fort Wayne.
Both teams faced it only once, and were found wanting.
Again, nothing changes.
It’s difficult to play that first game on the road, Howard said. Wherever we go, Rio Grande or Santa Cruz, it’s gonna be tough. They’re both unbelievable teams. It’s gonna take a lot, gonna take a team effort to try to pull out a win there.
So we just have to come with the same mindset we’ve been coming with all season. We’ve just got to turn it up a notch because whoever we play, they will as well.
The Ants didn’t play either Rio Grande or Santa Cruz on the road this season. They played each once in the Coliseum, losing 107-102 to Rio Grande on Dec. 28 and beating Santa Cruz 101-97 on Jan. 6.
Not that going on the road to play either doesn’t have certain advantages.
On the road I think it’s easier for us to focus, Howard said. I think in a way it’s easier to play on the road. When we come home, we know we have that comfort. We know our fans are gonna be there to back us up.
But on the road, we know it’s just us, and we have to come together. Because no one else can help us.