It took a long time for the mad Ants to get here. Seven years, most of which has been spent in or near the D-League’s cellar.
Saturday, they raised the D-League championship trophy for the first time, thanks largely to a transcendent performance from Tony Mitchell, who had 32 points in a 119-113 victory over the Santa Cruz Warriors at Memorial Coliseum.
Of course, it would ultimately come down to a shot from “Mr. Mad Ant,” Ron Howard, who has been with the team for each of its seven seasons.
His shot from just inside the 3-point line with 1:12 remaining put Fort Wayne up 115-113.
After a pair of Sadiel Rojas free throws, teammate Tony Mitchell hit a leaning 15-footer, and drew the foul, with 9.2 seconds left for a 118-113 lead that put the game out of reach.
It was typical Mad Ants basketball. They had a 20-point lead in the third quarter, then fell behind by two in the fourth before coming back to win it – all.
The Mad Ants had been to the playoffs only once before this season – getting swept by Santa Cruz in the first round last year – and had never won more than 27 of 50 games in the regular season.
Under coach Conner Henry, who was an assistant with Los Angeles last year, it was a different season almost from the start for Fort Wayne. It won its first division title and then the D-League’s regular-season championship, going 34-16 and winning 17 of its final 20 games.
In the playoffs, the Mad Ants swept Reno and Sioux Falls in best-of-three series, learning along the way that guard Ron Howard had been selected Co-MVP along with Iowa’s Othyus Jeffers by league coaches. Henry was selected Coach of the Year and Howard, who became the league’s all-time leading scorer in the regular season, won the Jason Collier Sportsmanship Award for a second straight year.
After winning Game 1 of the Finals 102-92 on Thursday in Santa Cruz, Calif., they extended their winning streak at the Coliseum to 17 games and captured the first championship for a professional basketball team in Fort Wayne since 1945, when the Pistons won one in the National Basketball League.
Against sixth-seeded Santa Cruz, which was 29-21 in the regular season, and defeated Los Angeles and 2013-champion Rio Grande Valley in the first two rounds, the Mad Ants opened Game 2 with a touch of nerves and a lot of missed shots. They missed five of their first 17 shots and fell behind 20-11 with 4:20 remaining in the first quarter, when Seth Curry hit a 3-pointer and drew a foul.
The Mad Ants stormed, thanks to dunks from Tim Ohlbrecht, Trey McKinney-Jones and Mitchell, who tied it at 20 with a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:00 remaining in the quarter. After a Santa Cruz timeout, Mitchell hit another 3-pointer to extend the run to 12-0.
The Mad Ants continued to roll and built a 42-29 lead with 8:21 left in the second quarter, thanks to a Matt Bouldin 3-pointer, set up by Sadiel Rojas, who flew five rows into the stands to save the ball.
A monstrous Mitchell dunk with 4:25 left made it 50-38, giving Mitchell 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting to that point, all coming off the bench.
A Mitchell 3-pointer with 48 seconds left in the second quarter made it 63-46, after which he stared down the Santa Cruz bench.
By halftime, when Fort Wayne led 65-48, Mitchell had 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting and Howard had 11 points.
But the Warriors got back within seven, at 83-75, with 2:43 remaining in the third quarter after two jump shots by Cameron Jones, a former Fort Wayne player, and a Curry 3-pointer, as Henry called from the sideline for his team to improve its defensive intensity.
With Curry trying to pull the Warriors to within one, an Ohlbrecht dunk set up a Howard layup with 40 seconds remaining in the third for an 85-80 lead. A McKinney-Jones reverse layup at the end of the quarter made it 91-80. Mitchell was scoreless in the third.
After a missed dunk by Fort Wayne’s Chris Porter, a 3-pointer from Mychel Thompson got Santa Cruz within 5, but Mitchell answered with a 3-pointer of his own for a 97-89 lead with 9:00 left in the game. But Jones’ layup with 8:15 remaining cut the Fort Wayne lead to three at 97-94. But back-to-back Porter baskets quelled the rally, until Curry had back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the Fort Wayne lead to 101-100.
A Thompson layup – plus a foul – put Santa Cruz up 103-101 with 5:03 left. Curry made three free throws, thanks to a foul by Mitchell, and Santa Cruz went up 105-101 with 4:33 left, but a Porter free throw tied it at 105.
For more on this story return to Mad Antics later tonight, go to www.journalgazette.net after 3 a.m. or see Sunday's Journal Gazette.