The Mad Ants shared the ball well, totaling 30 assists – five off their season high. Their defense was impressive, limiting the opposition to 36.2% shooting through three quarters, at which point a victory had effectively been cemented. And the Mad Ants led by as many as 41 points, eight more than their previous season best.
All totaled, it was a good Sunday for the Mad Ants, who defeated the Delaware Blue Coats 136-102 in front of 2,460 fans at Memorial Coliseum.
“They're going to have those big fellas in there, and it's just not about attacking basket. It's attacking the basket and kicking out and making shots. That's what we did,” said coach Steve Gansey after the Mad Ants (17-16) won for the eighth time in 10 games to get within two games of Grand Rapids for the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 17 games remaining.
The Mad Ants' starting lineup featured five players with NBA experience – rookie Goga Bitadze, Alize Johnson, Brian Bowen II, Walt Lemon Jr. and C.J. Wilcox – and it showed.
Bitadze, the Indiana Pacers' first-round draft pick last spring, had 24 points and 11 rebounds in his fourth G League game of the season.
“I thought he was good, a little rusty,” said Gansey, who should have Bitadze again for Tuesday's 7 p.m. game at the Coliseum against Atlantic Division-leading Maine (22-9). “You've got to think that when he plays with the Pacers, he plays just some spot minutes, no more than maybe 8 minutes and plays 3 or 4 minutes at a time. That's tough. Then he comes down here and plays a lot of minutes (34:05) and would have played more in a closer game.
“He needs to come down here and play as hard as he can. He's going to make some mistakes. He came up to me after the game and said, 'What's up with my layups?' That's just playing, having that touch and having that feel around the basket.”
Johnson, down from the Pacers for a 13th game this season, had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
“We jumped out of the gate and got out in transition, got some good stops. I think that's what really got us going, getting some good stops,” said Brian Bowen II, who had 17 points and six rebounds. “We were locking in on the defensive end. They had a few offensive rebounds at the beginning that we weren't happy with, so we tried to turn that around in the second half and get going. Everybody did their role and we played well.”
Daxter Miles Jr. had 22 points, 14 coming after Fort Wayne had built a 99-67 lead at the end of three quarters. Stephan Hicks added 15 points, as the Mad Ants shot 53.3% from the field.
Delaware (18-14), which finished at 42% shooting, was paced by Justin Robinson's 24 points.
The Mad Ants are in fourth place in the Central Division, which looks to be the conference's toughest with Wisconsin (25-8), Canton (21-12) and Grand Rapids (19-14) occupying playoff slots.
“We're really tough. I think we're one of the top teams, especially in our division, if we really lock in together and everything,” Bowen said. “Our record has improved a lot from (the franchise-worst 1-8) beginning of the season.
“We've just got to keep on rolling, keep locking in at the defensive end, and just keep being us. Overall, I think we have a bright future and are making that playoff push for sure.”