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Ben Smith

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‘Good teammates to everybody’

Well, now. That wasn’t such a tough get after all.

Seven years with these Mad Ants, and all it took to win a playoff series was the right coach and the right players and the sometimes foreign notion, at least in the D-League, that nothing gets you noticed faster than a pile of W’s. Oh, and effort and will and a little more effort – especially at the defensive end, a glitz-free neighborhood that nonetheless powers all that neon at the offensive end.

And so here on Sunday night, the Reno Bighorns hung around and hung around and hung around, and then, poof, the Mad Ants stepped on their air hose. They lifted the basketball from the Bighorns 19 times and forced 29 turnovers and that turned into an avalanche of points at the other end, and that turned into 115-93 rout.

Across the last 9 1/2 minutes, they outscored the Bighorns 35-17. They outrebounded Reno 52-42, including 24-12 on the offensive glass. And after a 15-2 burst in the second quarter took them from a 29-22 deficit to a 37-31 lead, they never allowed Reno to so much as get even again.

For a franchise that had never before closed out a playoff series, this was pretty much a doctoral thesis in how to close out a playoff series.

“I thought our overall focus was just incredible,” Mad Ants coach Conner Henry said when it was done. “We set good screens, we made the right read, we showed the ball, we were good teammates to everybody. And good things happened.”

They’ve happened all season to this team, and always for the same reasons. We set good screens, we made the right read, we showed the ball, we were good teammates to everybody: Henry could just record all that and press “play” whenever the subject comes up.

“It’s just staying together,” said Trey McKinney-Jones, who finished with 14 points, plus five rebounds, two assists and a steal. “We just stuck together as a team, kind of what we’ve been doing all year, and it worked for us.”

Sure. A box score will lie to you sometimes, but Sunday it spoke thundering truth. The Ants put six players in double figures, led by Tony Mitchell (21 points) and Will Frisby (20, of which 17 came in the fourth quarter). Of their 43 made buckets, 30 came off assists. And out of nine Ants who saw playing time, seven played at least 20 minutes.

“Everybody knows they’re gonna get between 25 and 28 minutes, and so they need to make the most of it when they get in there,” Henry said.

They do. And if that sometimes results in basketball that isn’t, well, pretty, it’s also the kind of basketball that wins at this level.

Knock-down. Drag-out. Bodies crashing to the floor. The basketball sailing off at weird angles and into entire other dimensions at times.

It’s the game brought to by the Department of Floor Burns, and it’s won 36 games this winter for a franchise that never won more than 27. It won a game for them out in Reno they had no business winning, and that led to a game in Memorial Coliseum last night they had no intention of losing.

“We were focused defensively for pretty dang near 48 minutes,” Henry said.

And now there will be 48 minutes more this week, against either Canton or Sioux Falls.

And, well, bring it on.

“We’re a confident group,” McKinney-Jones said. “We’ve been playing well all year. We know we just have to go out and play our game and we’ll be fine.”

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.