SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – The Mad Ants – the best team in the regular season – made winning look easy Thursday night against the Santa Cruz Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA D-League Finals at Kaiser Permanente Arena.
Tony Mitchell scored 25 points off the bench and teammate Ron Howard added 23 to lead the Mad Ants to their 11th straight win, 102-92, and drop Santa Cruz in a big hole with the remaining two games of the series scheduled for Saturday and Monday, if necessary, at Memorial Coliseum.
Warriors coach Casey Hill felt like the Warriors helped the Mad Ants' cause.
"We couldn't buy a bucket tonight," he said. "We missed layups in transition and wide-open 3s."
The Warriors finished a miserable 4 of 22 behind the arc and shot just 34 percent (31 of 89) from the field. The only place Santa Cruz seemed to be comfortable was at the free-throw line. There, they went 16-for-16 in the first half before finishing 26 of 31.
Hill added that the defense was "decent," but it wasn't enough to contain Fort Wayne.
Howard, a guard recently crowned co-MVP of the league after setting the D-League career scoring record, said it was important to the Mad Ants to get the road win.
"This is huge," he said, "but this is still a long series and they're a very good team."
Santa Cruz was led by guard Cameron Jones's 24 points. Seth Curry, held scoreless in limited action in the first half due to foul trouble, finished with 18.
The Warriors missed the services of 7-foot center Ognjen Kuzmic, who was frequently sent down on assignment by Golden State during the regular season and was the playoff leader in rebounds, as they were outrebounded 60 to 44. Lance Goulbourne led the team with 11. They also missed the inside presence of 6-11 Hilton Armstrong, a recent Golden State call-up.
Jones said the Warriors were happy with the looks they had from beyond the 3-point arc, even if they didn't go in.
"Very happy," Jones said. "It's not often we miss open 3-pointers like that. I felt like every time we needed that bucket, we didn't get it."
Fort Wayne also showed why it led the league in turnovers. Three straight times Santa Cruz had players stripped of the ball while going for a basket in the paint in the final five minutes, which didn't help the cause.
Jones made a big 3-pointer and followed it with a steal and a layup with 4 minutes left to pull the Warriors within 91-89. But that proved to be the end of Santa Cruz's comeback, as the Mad Ants slowly pulled away by making a series of free throws down the stretch.
Fort Wayne led 59-51 at the half.
The Warriors – who produced a franchise-best 147 points in their win over Rio Grande Valley on Monday to reach the championship series – jumped out to a short-lived lead early thanks to the interior play of Goulbourne and Daniel Nwaelele.
But the Mad Ants stormed back, turning a 6-1 deficit into a 25-12 lead thanks to several transition baskets. Howard was one of the prime benefactors, making 11 points in the opening quarter to lead all scorers.
Slowly, the Warriors made wiser passing decisions and chipped away at the deficit. They also managed to draw some big fouls driving to the basket to pull within eight points, 31-23, at the end of the quarter.
Joe Alexander got the Warriors fired up with a couple of thunderous dunks in the second quarter. Teammate Kiwi Gardner clapped with the crowd to try to help sway momentum and seconds later added a couple of free throws. It worked in the short term, as Santa Cruz tied the score at 33-all early in the second quarter.
Fort Wayne quickly re-established its lead behind baskets from Matt Bouldin and Mitchell. Then Santa Cruz came rallying back again, knotting the score at 46 after Jones finished a nice pass from Maurice Baker then threw down a dunk on the next trip down court.
Mychel Thompson drained a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half, but the Mad Ants responded with a long-range shot of their own to enter the locker room up by eight.
Goulbourne sat through much of the fourth quarter because Hill wasn't pleased with his defense. Goulbourne finished with 10 points along with his 11 rebounds.
"We're fine confidence-wise," Hill said. "It's just a wake-up call."