The start was woeful. The comeback was amazing.
But in the end it wasn’t enough.
The Mad Ants fell behind by 27 points early and couldn’t recover, losing their single-elimination Eastern Conference semifinal game 119-116 to the Erie BayHawks at Memorial Coliseum tonight.
Jamil Wilson missed a shot at the buzzer that could have sent the game to overtime.
The Mad Ants’ biggest comeback this season was from 19 points down to beat Maine on Feb. 10. The Mad Ants got within three points in the waning minutes, thanks to a DeQuan Jones 3-pointer, but they couldn’t get any closer.
Raptors 905 had already advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with its upset of top-seeded Westchester, 92-80 on Monday night, and was awaiting the winner of this game.
Jones had 29 points for the Mad Ants. Edmond Sumner and Ben Moore had 18 apiece.
Andrew White III had 26 for Erie.
The raucous crowd included Kevin Pritchard, the general manager and president of basketball operations for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, who own and operate the Mad Ants.
Fort Wayne, which won the Central Division and had the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, hadn’t played since losing its regular-season finale 113-99 at Erie, Pennsylvania, March 24, when they rested their top players because their playoff position with secure.
The Southeast Division-champion BayHawks, meanwhile, defeated the Lakeland Magic 96-90 on Saturday.
When the regular season ended, the Mad Ants believed this game would have been played Saturday. But the death March 26 of Grand Rapids’ Zeke Upshaw pushed back the entire G League schedule and the layoff didn’t help the Mad Ants, who missed 10 of their first 15 shots and trailed 21-8 just minutes into the game.
They began to show some life late in the first quarter after Wilson missed a dunk and the rebound came to Moore, who fought off a couple of defenders for a hook shot that cut Erie’s lead to 28-20 with 2:05 left.
White’s 3-pointer gave the Bayhawks a 35-24 lead at the end of the quarter, in which they shot 52.2 percent from the field and the Mad Ants shot 37.5 percent.
The BayHawks kept up their prowess from long range, converting 10 of their first 15 shots from beyond the arc, including a Craig Sword shot from the corner for a 56-32 lead with 7:20 left in the second quarter.
And the lead was up to a whopping 27 points, at 64-37, after Jeremy Hollowell’s hook shot with 5:10 late in the quarter. But the Mad Ants rallied with Walt Lemon Jr. on the bench and in foul trouble and Tra-Deon Hollins quarterbacking the offense; Erie’s lead was down to 73-59 at halftime.
The Mad Ants’ deficit was down to 96-85 after three quarters – Sumner finished the quarter with a 3-pointer and a drive near the buzzer – setting up a tense fourth quarter.
The atmosphere was electric during a 9-0 Fort Wayne run that began with a Moore dunk, saw Wilson get fouled on a 3-point attempt and make all the free throws, and Erie’s Josh Magette get a flagrant foul for tripping Jones.
The run ended, though, when Magette hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 2:35 left, putting Erie up 115-107.
A Jones 3-pointer from the corner, after Lemon penetrated and kicked the ball out, cut Erie’s lead to 115-112 with 1:25 left. But Magette’s pass to Jeremy Evans for an alley-oop with 22.3 seconds left made it 117-112.
The Mad Ants got the ball back, down 119-116, with 8.7 seconds left after Raphiael Putney missed 1 of 2 free throws. Wilson then missed a shot at the buzzer that could have forced overtime.
Before the game, Jones was selected the G League’s Most Improved Player, after voting among coaches and general managers, for a regular season in which he averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Also before the game, the Mad Ant unveiled their Central Division championship banner.