For more on the Mad Ants, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1
The Mad Ants were in the locker room, waiting for Tony Mitchell. Because, frankly, when he arrives, things happen.
This time, minutes after the Ants had won the NBA Development League championship, they needed Mitchell in the locker room for one final moment of solidarity: The champagne shower. Let's just say when he hit the locker room, the party started.
“Everybody always counted Fort Wayne out,” Mitchell said. “Now you see what Fort Wayne can do.”
The Mad Ants beat Santa Cruz 119-113 on Saturday in front of 4,719 at Memorial Coliseum, completing a sweep of the best-of-three series and a sweep of the playoffs. This, after posting the league-best 34-16 regular-season record that led to guard Ron Howard being co-MVP and the Sportsmanship Award winner and Conner Henry being the Coach of the Year.
“We didn't just win it, we swept it,” Ants president Jeff Potter said. “If there's been a D-League team better than us…In my opinion, there isn't. The way they've played together is awe-inspiring.”
The argument can certainly be made that this team was one that could stand up against any in D-League history. The Ants seemed to get better and better as the season progressed, and they did so with a wealth of talented players that didn't seem to care who got the spotlight or scored the points. That just doesn't happen in pro sports, especially in a league where everyone is fighting for an NBA call-up.
Mitchell was the only Mad Ant to receive a call-up this season, spending 10 days with the Milwaukee Bucks. His play during a stretch in the first half Saturday – a stretch that snapped the Mad Ants out of a slow start – deserves some of Potter's “awe-inspiring” adjective.
Mitchell hit 11-of-18 shots in the first half, scored 25 points, posted two highlight-reel dunks and hit one deep, deep three-pointer that seemed to signify that this would ultimately be the Mad Ants night.
“He was ready,” Ants forward Chris Porter said. “He was in his zone and he was out of his own mind.”
Mitchell jump-started the Mad Ants and they proceeded to build a 20-point lead in the second half. But the lead slowly deteriorated, presumably so that the Mad Ants could demonstrate one final time they possess resilience and will to win that has been unparalleled in the D-League this season.
Santa Cruz took the lead with five minutes to play and momentum seemed to be sliding toward a Game 3 on Monday night. The Warriors pushed the lead to four points. And then came the plays by the Mad Ants veterans. Howard with a drive, foul and free throw. Matt Bouldin with a lean-in shot. Bouldin with an alert put-back off an air ball. Chris Porter and Sadiel Rojas with their hands in the middle of everything. Howard with a shot-clock buzzer-beater that put the Ants up to stay.
“We learned how to be champions this year,” Howard said.
For most of the Mad Ants' existence, the idea they would become champions seemed rather far-fetched. They failed to make the playoffs in the first five seasons. In fact, two years ago they had the worst record in the D-League.
Potter credits former coach Duane Ticknor, now with the Memphis Grizzlies, with “stopping the bleeding” and changing the culture.
Then Henry came in and, after a 1-5 start, worked some magic. He was able to blend NBA-assigned players with his core group and somehow, some way, keep everybody happy.
“I never had one issue the whole year,” Henry said.
Mitchell, an incredible talent, accepted Henry's strategy of bringing him off the bench. Howard willingly took fewer shots. Rojas, Bouldin, Porter, Trey McKinney-Jones, Will Frisby, Tim Ohlbrecht, Ramon Harris – they all accepted their minutes and their roles without complaint.
“It's rare, that's why it's so special,” McKinney-Jones said. “The chemistry on this team is something you don't see very often. We played together as a team on defense and that's what really won it for us.”
Mitchell led the team with 32 points, Howard scored 23, Bouldin 20, Porter 12 and Ohlbrecht 11. Rojas had nine rebounds. McKinney-Jones played 30 minutes of solid defense and took only six shots. That's the type of unselfishness that epitomized this team.
“We like each other,” Rojas aid. “We sacrificed a lot for one another. I sacrificed a lot, Tony Mitchell sacrificed a lot, Ron Howard. We all could average 25 points a game on this team, 1-through-10 we all sacrificed a lot for the guy right next to us to succeed and be No.1 and make history.”
Ramon Harris, who played 2 minutes, 13 seconds in the title game and has always displayed that team-first approach, stood up in the locker room and put the win in perspective, Potter said.
“We've done something no one has ever done in our franchise history,” Harris said. “Whoever comes after this will have big, big shoes to fill.”
The Ants took turns carrying the huge championship trophy around the arena. Then they soaked each other with champagne. That's what champions do.
“Winning a championship is the greatest feeling you can get,” Rojas said.
This Mad Ants season, in every way possible, was a clean sweep.
Santa Cruz 27 21 32 33 – 113
Fort Wayne 27 38 26 28 – 119
Santa Cruz: Nwaelele 1-9 6-6 9, Goulbourne 7-13 6-6 20, Kotzur 5-12 0-0 10, Curry 8-21 7-9 29, Jones 9-18 7-9 28, Alexander 1-3 0-6 2, Thompson 4-8 3-3 13, Gardner 0-1 0-0 0, Baker 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 36-88 29-39 113.
Fort Wayne: Rojas 1-9 2-2 5, McKinney-Jones 3-6 3-4 9, Frisby 2-5 3-4 7, Howard 9-17 5-7 23, Bouldin 8-12 1-1 20, R. Harris 0-0 0-0 0, Ohlbrecht 5-11 1-3 11, Mitchell 13-26 2-3 32, Porter 5-11 2-4 12. Totals 46-97 19-28 119.
Three-point goals: SC/12-31 (Curry 6-14, Jones 3-6, Thompson 2-4, Nwaelele 1-7), FW/8-20 (Mitchell 4-8, Bouldin 3-4, Rojas 1-6, McKinney-Jones 0-1, Howard 0-1). Rebounds: SC/48 (Goulbourne 14, Kotzur 10), FW/48 (Rojas 10, Ohlbrecht 8, Porter 8). Assists: SC/19 (Jones 6), FW/21 (Howard 6). Steals: SC/9 (Goulbourne 3), FW/14 (Rojas 5, Howard 3, Porter 3). Blocks: SC/3, FW/1. Attendance: 4,719