FORT WAYNE – Once again, the veteran guards led the way. But this time, the kid from Purdue was right with them.
The Mad Ants and first-year coach Duane Ticknor got victory No. 1 of the D-League season, 86-75 over Canton, before 1,563 fans at Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday.
Guards Walker Russell Jr. and Ron Howard, both of whom have been with the Ants at one time or another since the franchise began, did the bulk of the scoring – 25 points for Russell and 20 for Howard.
Yet it was the 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots from former Purdue All-American JaJuan Johnson that was the sweetest sight for Ticknor.
J.J. finally played like the J.J. we expected, Ticknor said.
I don’t think he’ll take a step backwards now. He just looked relaxed and looked like the guy we all know.
In his first two games, Johnson had a combined 17 points and 17 rebounds, which included a four-point game against Maine on Sunday.
We had a little conversation at halftime Sunday and kind of challenged him a little bit, Ticknor said. He’s been the first guy in the gym all three days of practice this week, so he’s refocused and ready to go.
Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the D-League draft, said the timing is coming around.
I’m starting to get there, he said. I still have to be smart in certain situations – slow down a little bit. But overall, I was playing hard, and when you play hard, things take care of themselves.
With eight points in both halves and his rebounds nearly as evenly distributed, Johnson was consistent.
That wasn’t the case for Russell, who came on after Howard picked up his fourth foul early in the second half.
With 9:31 left in the third, Russell’s jump shot gave the Ants a 47-46 lead. Then he scored from close in off a spin move. Then he weaved through traffic to put in a left-handed layup.
By the time he hit a three-pointer with 1:38 left to send the Ants ahead 63-58, Russell had scored 18 straight points.
I got a couple easy ones, and once you get some easy ones, it’s easy to keep it going, said Russell. I just got into a good rhythm. When Ron went out, I just took it upon myself to make some plays.
Note: Tony Mitchell, a 6-foot-8 forward from Alabama, was acquired by the Mad Ants and forward Jason Warren was released. Mitchell averaged 13.1 points and 7 rebounds as a junior at Alabama. In two games, Warren averaged 1.5 points.