FORT WAYNE —
That caused a multitude of issues Thursday against Maine: Don’t look past the lowly Red Claws; don’t expend too much energy on a night the high-flying D-Fenders are idle; and don’t get hurt.
There was a spell in which the Mad Ants took their opponent a bit too lightly – Fort Wayne led by only two points at halftime – but they emerged with a 122-108 victory and felt good about their chances for the possible clinching game.
“We knew that in this game, our energy probably wasn’t going to be the greatest,” Mad Ants coach Conner Henry said.
“But we ground it out. We had a good quarter and got the win. We know the importance of tomorrow and we’ll be focused.”
The Mad Ants (33-16), who have won 16 of their last 19 games, were led by 21 points apiece from Ron Howard and Sadiel Rojas, who had a team-high 12 rebounds. Tim Ohlbrecht and Tony Mitchell had 16 points each, while Matt Bouldin had 14 points and 10 assists.
An 18-8 run in the first half put the Mad Ants up 36-24, but the surge was halted by a 3-pointer from Maine’s Frank Gaines, who starred at IPFW last season and scored 23 points, one more than his season average. The Mad Ants led 64-62 at halftime.
The Mad Ants opened the third quarter with a 14-4 run, paced by six points from Howard and five from Matt Bouldin, for a 78-66 lead. The game was never again in doubt.
“They are out of the playoffs and didn’t have a lot to play for, necessarily,” Bouldin said. “I thought we did a pretty good job in the second half. Our energy was a lot better. The first half, we were a little sluggish. The second half was what we needed to do.”
The Red Claws (19-30) were led by Chris Wright’s 30 points.
The Mad Ants won their only previous meeting with Los Angeles, 125-121 on March 18 at the Coliseum. The D-Fenders (31-17) average 122 points per game, second only to Rio Grande Valley’s 123.1 and 13 more per game than the Mad Ants.
“Everybody had pretty even minutes across the board tonight, and I actually like playing back-to-back nights because you come out a little looser,” Bouldin said.
If the Mad Ants win, they take the top seed and get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 4 through 8. If Los Angeles wins tonight and Saturday at Iowa, it gets the top seed. According to the Mad Ants, if Fort Wayne and Los Angeles end up tied, the D-Fenders will win on the second tiebreaker: record against .500-and-over teams. The No. 2 seed will get the second pick of its first-round playoff opponent.
“Their pace, we know it,” Henry said. “They had (47) shots from 3-point range against us last time. They’ll get up as many 3s as possible and play at a high level getting up and down the floor. But all we could do was manage the minutes tonight. We did that as best we could.”
Note: During halftime, the Mad Ants re-signed guard Anthony Harris, 29, an important component in their run to the playoffs last season, when he averaged 8.9 points and 4.3 assists in 35 games. He began this season with Fort Wayne but was released after eight games and played for Bakersfield and Canton. Harris took the place of guard Jamaal Franklin, who was recalled by the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday and isn’t expected back.