FORT WAYNE – Ah. So this is what the playoffs look like.
They look like Tony Mitchell dropping jumpers, pretzeling to the tin, stacking up points like a miser stacking his gold.
They look like Sadiel Rojas, writhing on his back after drawing a charge, then nodding to a hovering teammate: OK.
They look like Duane Ticknor over there on the sideline, pacing up and down, folding his hands on top of his head as some play or other slews off the rails, bleeding a little with every possession. Like Jeremy Tyler of Santa Cruz, the question without an answer, wheeling to drop one knockoff skyhook after another.
They look like this: First quarter, 59 seconds to play, Mad Ants just trying to hang onto Santa Cruz’s flying wake. Anthony Richardson has the basketball for them, somewhere out on the wing. Some easy mark is out there with him, trying to check him.
As if. Richardson sheds the guy like a second skin, steals the baseline, crosses under the rim. Then, between one blink of the eye and the next, he elevates and flushes a vicious reverse slam.
Something like a moan (Oooohhhh) escapes the onlookers, too many of whom have come dressed as empty seats. It’s one small moment of triumph on a night when there were too few of them, when Santa Cruz – too long, too skilled, too dominant down low where the games get decided – crashed posterity’s party and delivered the evening’s message as loudly and insistently as possible.
This, gentlemen. This is what the playoffs look like.
And so Santa Cruz 124, Mad Ants 118 in the first playoff game in franchise history, and if there were moments when it seemed the reverse could be true, there weren’t nearly enough of them. Santa Cruz led by three after a quarter, by nine at the half, by 17 in the third quarter. And even though Mitchell and Ron Howard got it all back for the Ants, even gave them a couple of brief leads in the fourth quarter, it never really felt like it was going to stick.
The Warriors simply went inside to Tyler, who scored 21 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter. They outscored the Ants 30-21 across the last 8:43. They shot 54 percent for the game, 44.4 percent from beyond the arc.
They made great shots, conceded Ticknor, whose team got 62 of its points from Mitchell (40) and Howard (22).
They hurt us pretty bad in the paint and we’ve got to fix that, Howard said.
Back to Ticknor again, jacket shed, giving voice to the obvious.
That’s a good basketball team, he said. They probably have a little bit more talent than us. We have to play almost a perfect game to beat them.
And of course, they didn’t. Came out a little too pumped, Ticknor figured. Couldn’t handle Santa Cruz’s bigs inside, something he’d feared.
Fought hard to get back into it, but ultimately couldn’t make it happen against a veteran team with championship experience.
And now it’s on to Santa Cruz, where they win two or they go home.
Three-and-10’s a lot bigger hole than 0-1, Ticknor said, referring to the start of the Mad Ants’ season. This team won’t quit. I know that.
Along with much else, now.