The Mad Ants claim to not be watching the standings, but the team affected the standings greatly with a 116-109 victory Saturday over the Delaware 87ers at Memorial Coliseum.
Paced by Tyler Hansbrough’s 31 points – the most of his eight D-League games – the Mad Ants (26-18) remained within striking distance of the Canton Charge (28-18) for the third of four seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
More importantly, the Mad Ants, who have six remaining regular-season games, got some needed breathing room on Delaware (23-21), including the tiebreaker because Fort Wayne took the season series 3-1.
"We fought. This was a huge game for us. It puts us really in the driver’s seat to make this playoff push," said coach Steve Gansey, whose Mad Ants led all but 19 seconds of the game, and play host to the Austin Spurs today. "We’re going to continue to get better and try to play our best basketball the end of this stretch now."
Hansbrough, who made 12 of 17 shots and had a game-best 16 rebounds, was part of the biggest sequence of the night, as Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird was among the 4,744 spectators. Hansbrough tipped the ball off a Delaware player and out of bounds and it took a video review by the officials to determine it should be Fort Wayne’s ball, after which Hansbrough fought through two defenders for a shot, got his own rebound, made the layup and drew a foul for a 107-102 lead with 1:26 remaining.
Rookie All-Star Alex Poythress hit a decisive shot from the top of the key for a 111-107 lead with 35 seconds left, as the Mad Ants won for the third time in four games, and the 87ers lost for the fourth time in their last five.
"I think we really pushed the ball and we really defended. We kind of let go of the gas a little bit in the second half, but then we buckled down and started to finish," said Poythress, who totaled 23 points and seven rebounds, as the Mad Ants squandered a 12-point lead to fall behind briefly on a jump shot by Nate Robinson.
Answering that basket was Hansbrough with a turnaround jumper for an 89-88 lead with 9:09 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"He’s an NBA veteran and his play speaks for itself," said Gansey, whose team was on the heels of a six-game road trip in which it won three times. "Guys see that, see how hard he plays, and it definitely rubs off. He won our previous game on the West Coast swing with a steal and he had a big-time and-1 there tonight, and he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing for us."
Delaware, which has seven games remaining to get back into a playoff spot, was paced by 22 points from Russ Smith, a former Mad Ants player, and Robinson’s 21.
After missing nine games because of a call-up to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and a back injury, rookie Ben Bentil was back in the Fort Wayne lineup but was 0 for 4 over 4:26. Trey McKinney Jones had 20 points and Marquis Teague added 13.
"I just feel like everybody on the court is just working hard and just trying to do the little things out there, whatever we need to do to win," Poythress said.
Note: Jarrod Uthoff, who replaced Bentil with the Mavericks, is expected to sign a second 10-day contract, according to multiple media reports, so it’s unknown when or if he’ll rejoin the Mad Ants.