On Saturday night, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants edged the Santa Cruz Warriors at home by a score of 119-113, completing a 2-0 sweep and thus, winning the organization's first NBA D-League title.
But to say the Warriors put forth a "valiant" effort isn't exactly accurate. In fact, it ironically doesn't do the opponent enough justice.
Recognized as an inferior team on paper as per playoff seeding, Santa Cruz gave Fort Wayne a run for its money during what proved to be the sixth seed's second straight Finals appearance. Returning to Fort Wayne as a new and improved player, now a leading man for the Warriors, former Mad Ant Cameron Jones led his team onto the hardwood he used to call home, in hopes of stealing a victory and keeping his team's championship hopes alive. The D-League's "Most Improved Player" last season, Jones has continued to progress. As fate would have it, he'd been playing out of his mind this postseason heading into game two.
With Jones and his backcourt mate Seth Curry leading the way, Santa Cruz was raring to go. They competed hard and managed to keep the Mad Ants on their toes throughout, but it simply wasn't enough by the time the buzzer sounded.
Whereas Fort Wayne managed to control the tempo and secure a comfortable lead in game one, this decisive game two proved to be a game of runs. The Warriors jumped out to a 9-0 lead early on, but no such advantage proved to be too comfortable. The Mad Ants came roaring back with a nine-point run of their own, and from there, the two teams continued to go back and forth, exchanging and imitating each other's hot and cold streaks for minutes at a time.
But even as the Warriors appeared to be on the ropes, they took one last gasp of air and pushed back to give Fort Wayne everything else they had. Santa Cruz even grabbed a lead with minutes to go, but some unfortunate fouls and a couple of extra possessions for the home team allowed them to recapture a lead of their own and hold onto it for good.
Whereas Curry had 29 points and Jones added 28 in the loss, the Mad Ants were paced by Tony Mitchell and his 32 points off the bench. The high-flying forward can often appear to be erratically wild on offense at times, but sometimes (perhaps more often than not, actually), the young gun is able to channel such a continued surge of energy into something special. He just makes it work somehow, and there's no doubt Fort Wayne proved to be the benefactor of such an effort this postseason.
Though Mitchell (who hit the go-ahead bucket for his team in game one), led the team in scoring, the Mad Ants' efforts from start to finish were undoubtedly led by recently crowed co-MVP Ron Howard. A seven year veteran of the D-League, this championship win marks the first of its kind for the 31 year old. It goes without saying he's earned such an accomplishment (and the opportunity to exhale a bit, as well) more so than just about anyone else.
Howard scored 23 points of his own, seemingly doing his part to ensure his team secured the win after all. Though Howard and Mitchell may represent two of the most notable names on this roster, the Mad Ants' are an eclectic group from A to Z, sprinkled with intriguing talent from top to bottom. Such an accomplishment will surely help such young guns cash in on some more promising gigs in the months to follow as well.