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Last updated: Sat. Apr. 26, 2014 - 03:23 am EDT

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Keeping the pedal down key for Mad Ants

Fort Wayne can win its first D-League title tonight

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NBA D-League Finals

Fort Wayne Mad Ants vs. Santa Cruz Warriors

Game 1: Mad Ants 102, Warriors 92

Game 2: 7:30 p.m. tonight at Memorial Coliseum (CBS Sports Network, tape delay, 10:30 p.m.)

Game 3 (if necessary): 7 p.m. Monday at Memorial Coliseum.

For more on the Mad Ants, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

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Ron Howard won't let anyone touch the cruise control.

Yes, the Mad Ants are in a perfect situation, up 1-0 on the Santa Cruz Warriors in their best-of-three NBA Development League Finals with Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) at home.

Any team can win one out of two at home, right? We're almost to where crowning the Mad Ants as D-League champs is a formality, right?

Wrong.

“We understand we haven't done anything yet,” Howard said. “(Game 1) is over and we have to focus on the next one. That won't be a problem at all. We'll be defensively locked in, and rebound, and if we do those things, we've got a good chance.”

The Mad Ants play Santa Cruz in Game 2 at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Memorial Coliseum. The Ants are expecting a big walk-up crowd eager to witness some history. After the Ants' 102-92 win at Santa Cruz on Thursday, Fort Wayne fans have a right to be excited.

How hot are the Mad Ants? They've won 11 straight, including all five playoff games. They've won 15 of their last 16. Since losing to Austin on Jan. 10, they've won 16 straight home games.

So the answer to that question is scalding hot.

Yet they can't relax, as coach Conner Henry well knows. Henry was an assistant with the Los Angeles D-Fenders in 2012 when they were blitzing through the D-League, dominating, cruising, practically toying with opponents. They won at Austin to open the D-League Finals, returned home to close things out and proceeded to lose both games in their arena.

The Ants can't relax. Santa Cruz is way too talented and full of pride to travel to Fort Wayne and put up a half-hearted effort the way Reno and Sioux Falls did in the first two rounds of the tournament. The Warriors came back on a couple of different double-digit Mad Ants' leads on Thursday, and were within a big bucket of seizing momentum.

To the Ants' credit, they stepped up with big plays by Howard, Tony Mitchell, Ramon Harris and others down the stretch.

There's clearly a resilience to this Mad Ants team that leads me to believe they won't relax, they won't put their game in cruise control and they won't allow Santa Cruz to force a Game 3 where anything can happen and pressure heightens for the home team.

Howard said he believes the Ants will retain the sharp focus and execution they've been displaying most of the season, but especially in the playoffs.

“We bought into what coach was saying all along, and (assistant) coach (Steve) Gansey, about what gives us the best chance to win,” Howard said. “We've gone through every situation this year. We've blown leads and overcome them. We've been down 10 with two minutes left and came back. If we stick together, we know we're never out of it.”

Fort Wayne jumped to a fast start at Santa Cruz on Thursday, one factor that helped set the stage for the road win. The backcourt of Howard and Matt Bouldin deftly worked the offensive spacing and ball movement early. They were also able, defensively, to hold Santa Cruz point guard Seth Curry scoreless in the first half.

Curry stepped up his offense in the second half, scoring 18 points, and that's one aspect Santa Cruz is likely to try to emphasize tonight. The Warriors have decent depth, similar to the Mad Ants, but they clearly have more success when Curry and Cameron Jones are in an offensive groove.

The Mad Ants, at times, allowed too many second-chance shots for Santa Cruz, something they'll emphasize tonight.

“It has to be a collective effort,” Henry said before Game 1. “It's the oldest cliché, we've said it all year, but the bottom line is it is a fact. The team that rebounds the hardest and plays the hardest for the 50-50 balls gives themselves the best chance to win.”

That mentality – “No plays off” as Sadiel Rojas puts it – has driven the Ants to wins all season. Cruise control is for the offseason.

rhayes@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.


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