FORT WAYNE – Of course, it would come down to the man known as Mr. Mad Ant.
His team having squandered a 20-point lead at Memorial Coliseum, even trailing by four in the fourth quarter, Ron Howard’s shot from just inside the 3-point arc with two men in his face broke open a tied game with 1:12 remaining and propelled the Mad Ants to the D-League championship Saturday night with a 119-113 victory over the Santa Cruz Warriors.
This is unbelievable. This is where we’re supposed to be. We worked so hard all season and we’re champions, said Howard, after the Mad Ants completed a sweep of the best-of-three D-League Finals.
And it took a long time to get here. Seven years, most of which had been spent in or near the D-League’s cellar.
We learned how to be champions this year. Everyone on this team learned how to be a champion, Howard said, as confetti covered the 4,719 fans.
The Mad Ants had been to the playoffs only once before this year – getting swept by Santa Cruz in the first round last season – 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 different almost from the start. The Mad Ants won their first division title and then the D-League’s regular-season championship, going 34-16 and winning 17 of their final 20 games.
In the playoffs, they swept Reno and Sioux Falls in best-of-three series, learning along the way that Howard had been selected Co-MVP along with Iowa’s Othyus Jeffers by league coaches.
Henry was chosen as 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.
Tony Mitchell, the only player on the Fort Wayne roster to spend time in the NBA this season, having done so with the Milwaukee Bucks, led Fort Wayne with 32 points on 13-of-26 shooting off the bench.
I wanted to win a championship and I came out and gave it all I had, said Mitchell, who had 25 points by halftime, when Fort Wayne had established a 65-48 lead.
That ballooned to a 20-point advantage, at 82-62, on Matt Bouldin’s 3-pointer with 5:41 remaining in the third quarter.
But in typical fashion, the Mad Ants squandered it before showing their resiliency at the end.
Led by Seth Curry, who had a team-best 29 points, and 28 from Cam Jones, a former Fort Wayne player, the sixth-seeded Warriors got a four-point lead with 4:33 remaining.
Then Ron stepped up on that jumper (for a 113-111 lead) which I thought looked short from where I was, but it was a swish, Santa Cruz coach Casey Hill said.
Mitchell hit a leaning 15-footer, and drew a foul on Mychel Thompson, for a 118-113 victory-sealing lead with 9.2 second remaining. Bouldin had 20 points. Ohlbrecht added 11.
I wanted it to end the right way and, by God, it did, Mad Ants president Jeff Potter said.