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Posted on Mon. Apr. 08, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Mad Ants enter playoffs as a true contender

No one wanted to face Fort Wayne in the first round

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Respect for the Mad Ants' regular-season play arrived Sunday when no one called their name.

The NBA Development League sets up its playoffs by allowing the three division winners to pick their first-round opponents from among the four wild-card teams with the worst records.

Bakersfield, Rio Grande Valley and Canton all chose a team other than the Mad Ants.

“That was a real tribute to our guys and showed a lot of respect for what we've accomplished,” Ants coach Duane Ticknor said. “We were just happy to be in. We didn't care who or where we played or any of that stuff. We just wanted to get there and see what happens.

“But it was kind of gratifying to not get picked.”

The Mad Ants (27-23) will face Santa Cruz (32-18) in a best-of-three first-round series, starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum. Game 2 and Game 3 (if necessary) will be in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Saturday and Sunday.

Fort Wayne finished as the No.5 seed in the regular-season, earning the franchise's first playoff berth in six seasons in the league.

While the Ants beat Santa Cruz the two times they met in the regular season in early January, Ticknor said those games are irrelevant now.

“You can throw that stuff out the window,” Ticknor said. “They're a different team and we have different players.”

Ticknor calls Santa Cruz one of the better defensive teams in the league. The Warriors' roster is filled with players who have playoff experience, he said. He also mentioned the addition of 6-foot-10 forward/center Jeremy Tyler (17.4 points per game in 12 games) as a boost to the depth and talent on Santa Cruz's roster.

Former University of Georgia guard Travis Leslie leads the Warriors with 15.4 points per game, former Missouri guard Stefhon Hannah averages 14 points and 5.1 assists per game and former UConn standout Hilton Armstrong averages 13.4 points per game.

Santa Cruz also has former Mad Ants guard/forward Cam Jones (12.6 ppg) as well as Taylor Griffin (10.7 ppg), the brother of NBA star Blake Griffin.

The Ants hope to have guard Ron Howard back in action after missing time with a wrist injury, but his status is uncertain.

Fort Wayne won 11 of its final 15 regular-season games.

“We like our veteran crew,” Ticknor said. “It makes for a great matchup. I think these games will all be competitive, whether they're in Santa Cruz or Fort Wayne.”

Ticknor pointed to the close race for a playoff spot as evidence of how much parity existed in the D-League this season.

“If we would have lost Friday night, we wouldn't have made the playoffs,” Ticknor said. “By winning, we moved all the way to fifth (seed). When I get so disappointed about a loss in January, the players don't understand that. You can't give games away because it comes down to this every year.

“This was probably the closest ever, but usually there's a tiebreaker involved somewhere.”

rhayes@news-sentinel.com


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