Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that can turn a team’s fortunes. In the case of the Mad Ants, it was forcing a shot-clock violation after a timeout and trailing by six points in the first quarter Saturday.
What ensued was a crucial 115-96 victory over the Erie BayHawks at Memorial Coliseum, paced by DeQuan Jones’ 23 points.
Stephan Hicks, Trey McKinney Jones and Jarrod Uthoff had 17 points apiece, and Uthoff added 10 rebounds for his team-leading ninth double-double of the season.
It was a decisive response to Fort Wayne’s woeful 117-99 home loss Friday to the Canton Charge, and it has the Mad Ants (27-20) on the cusp of winning the Central Division title that would guarantee them a playoff spot.
“The energy was different,” Hicks said. “The energy was better at both ends of the floor. I know they got out to an early lead, but we picked it up after that, just having energy in passing lanes, defensive rebounds and running in the offensive end. You know, we were attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line.”
The Mad Ants have a one-game lead on the Grand Rapids Drive for the division lead.
Getting position over the Southeast Division-leading BayHawks (26-22) is crucial since they are battling for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind the Westchester Knicks, as it will bring with it a bye from the single-elimination first round of the G League playoffs.
The BayHawks, who were paced by Jordan Mathews’ 20 points, would have seemed to have had an advantage Saturday. Not only were they off Friday night, but they were in the Coliseum stands watching the Mad Ants get dominated by woeful Canton.
“This league is different,” Mad Ants coach Steve Gansey said. “I can remember a time when we were waiting for a team that played (on the road) the night before and it was a Sunday and they got in at 2:30 in the afternoon and we played them at 5 (p.m.) and they came out and kicked our butts. A lot of things can happen in this league. But our guys really rallied together and were really upset about (Friday) night and I was hoping that it lit a little fire under them. It showed and they played really good.”
The Mad Ants were down 24-18 and discussing how to set up their defense before their crucial moment. What ensued was an 11-0 run that began with Lemon driving for an underhand basket and included Uthoff setting up three baskets with a steal, a block and an offensive rebound, and the Mad Ants led 29-24.
By the time Hicks converted a free throw to complete a 3-point play with 6:03 left in the second quarter, Fort Wayne’s lead was up to 50-37.
The Bayhawks got within four at 68-64 when Jeremy Hollowell dashed along the baseline and sent a pass into the paint for Jeremy Evans and a wide-open dunk with 7:15 left in the third quarter.
But the Mad Ants reestablished themselves and took a 90-76 lead with 20 seconds left in the third quarter when Jones made a 3-pointer, and a McKinney Jones' 3-pointer made it 95-81 with 9:45 left in the fourth quarter.
The Mad Ants, who have won only two of their last seven games, have three games left in the regular season, beginning with Monday’s 7 p.m. game at the Coliseum against the Wisconsin Herd, whose coaching staff was at the Coliseum scouting Saturday. The Mad Ants play Friday at the Coliseum against the Windy City Bulls and then finish the regular season Saturday at Erie, Pennsylvania.
If the Mad Ants don’t win the division, they are almost assured of at least making the playoffs. The three division winners and three wildcards will make the conference postseason and they have a 2½-game lead on the seven-place Lakeland Magic.