The Mad Ants believe they're close to being a dangerous team.
It's the little spells of letting down in intensity, or the missed free throws or getting out-rebounded at inopportune times, that's holding them back.
They almost shocked the G League's top team – for the second time this season – but ultimately lost 121-115 to the Wisconsin Herd in front of an announced crowd of 1,354 on Tuesday at Memorial Coliseum.
“It's just us trying to put the full 48 minutes together,” said C.J. Wilcox, who had 19 points, including 4-of-8 shooting from 3-point range, for the Mad Ants (9-13).
“We missed some free throws at the end. We had some moments where we didn't make the right plays. We got some good looks we've got to convert on; we missed some layups. But it's just trying to put the full game together.”
The Mad Ants were without Naz Mitrou-Long (ankle), Brian Bowen II (herniated disc) and D.J. McCall (concussion), but they got a lot of help from the NBA's Indiana Pacers, who sent Goga Bitadze and Alize Johnson for the game.
Johnson had 26 points and 19 rebounds, giving him 26 double-doubles in 37 games over two seasons with the Mad Ants. Bitadze had 14 points and 13 rebounds.
It was a back-and-forth game with 18 lead changes. The Herd led by as many as 11 points and the Mad Ants by as many as 10.
Division-rival Wisconsin (18-4) didn't pull away for good until Frank Mason III's 3-pointer with 2:10 left made it 110-107. Mason totaled 34 points on 12-of-22 shooting.
“I thought we had some good looks offensively all night, some wide-open looks, but we just didn't knock them down,” said coach Steve Gansey, whose Mad Ants shot 41.2% from the field, slightly worse than Wisconsin's 45.4% shooting.
“Jemerrio Jones had six offensive rebounds against our two NBA bigs, technically (our) three because I consider Ben Moore to be an NBA big. They were just outworking us. We were taking these guys a little bit for granted, but they're (atop the standings) for a reason. Every possession counts, offensively and defensively.”
The Mad Ants, who have won six of their last nine games, are 21/2 games back of Grand Rapids for the final wildcard spot in the conference with 28 games remaining. The Mad Ants, who began the season with a franchise-worst 1-8 start, had snapped the Herd's 12-game winning streak with a 125-124 victory at the Coliseum on Dec. 16.
Wisconsin, which got 20 points and 15 rebounds from Jones, has won five of six.
“When you're playing a really tough team like that, you've got to put your best 48 minutes forward,” Gansey said. “You have to play the full 48. If you fall asleep for 2 minutes, they're going to take advantage and that's what happened toward the end.”
Fort Wayne's Stephan Hicks had 16 points. Walt Lemon Jr. added 12 points and seven assists.
In the fourth quarter, Fort Wayne made 11 of 26 shots and Wisconsin 14 of 22.
“It's just (about) making plays at the end of the game,” Wilcox said. “They made some good plays, made some offensive rebounds, got some kick-out 3s. We can't recover on those. But we had a good effort all the way through.”