Amid the confetti raining down from the Memorial Coliseum ceiling, Mad Ants president Jeff Potter proclaimed that his team, which had just won the D-League championship for the first time, was one of the best teams in league history.
And he was correct.
After winning the regular-season championship with a 34-16 record, the Mad Ants swept their way through three series, culminating with Saturday night’s 119-113 victory over Santa Cruz in front of 4,719 fans.
For Potter, his team’s victories in 23 of the last 26 games, including all six in the playoffs, said plenty to the rest of the D-League, which has included Fort Wayne among its members for seven seasons.
“I think it says we’re one of the best to ever play in this league,” Potter said. “Am I biased? Yes. But why not? We won some ungodly number like 23 of 26, and I think we’re one of the best to ever play in the D-League. Some teams may have had better players, but there’s never been a better team, in my opinion.”
The Mad Ants are the first professional basketball team from Fort Wayne to win a championship since the Zollner Pistons in the National Basketball League in 1945. The Pistons lost in the 1955 and 1956 NBA Finals. The Fury fell in the 1996 Continental Basketball Association finals.
Before this season, the Mad Ants had never won more than 27 games and had been to the playoffs only once, getting swept by Santa Cruz in 2013.
“We got better players, for one, and that was a good start (this season),” said Potter, whose Mad Ants led by 20 in the third quarter Saturday, trailed by four with 4:33 left and took the lead for good at 113-111 on Ron Howard’s long-range jump shot with two men in his face and 1:12 on the clock.
“Secondly, we’ve got tough players, and they showed it, even when they were up 20 and (let it slip away). I don’t know if they were trying to mess with my heart or something. They go down four. But they’re so tough. They come back. And they make every play necessary.”
Tony Mitchell scored 32 points to lead the Mad Ants. Howard had 23, and Matt Bouldin added 20.
In the playoffs, which included victories over Reno and Sioux Falls, Mitchell averaged a team-best 22.5 points, Sadiel Rojas averaged 9.3 rebounds and Bouldin averaged 6.0 assists.
The Mad Ants are the seventh D-League playoff team to go undefeated since the league was founded in 2001. Only one other had played as many games and done so. That was Rio Grande Valley, which went 6-0 en route to the 2013 title with center Tim Ohlbrecht, who averaged 7.5 points and 6.0 rebounds for Fort Wayne in these playoffs.
Although the aim of the D-League is to develop players for the NBA, the Mad Ants’ roster was one laden with veterans more than prospects. They had only one rookie, Trey McKinney-Jones, and only one player in the postseason, Mitchell, had spent time in the NBA this season.
Despite six NBA affiliations this season – Indiana, Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Orlando – the only players with NBA contracts sent down to Fort Wayne in the regular season were Jamaal Franklin, Peyton Siva, Solomon Hill, Orlando Johnson and another Tony Mitchell.
“Our owner, Jeff Potter, our coaching staff, and the entire organization worked extremely hard to get us here,” said Howard, who was selected regular-season co-MVP along with Iowa’s Othyus Jeffers.
Howard, who became the D-League’s all-time scorer also won the Jason Collier Sportsmanship Award for a second straight year. And Conner Henry, who replaced Duane Ticknor in the offseason, won the Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year Award. “We got the right coach and the right players,” Howard said, “and we mixed it together to produce this.”