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Accepting coaching fueled Ants’ success

The next stop for the Mad Ants is home, where they will return today from Santa Cruz, Calif., after being eliminated from the NBA Development League playoffs 110-92 on Saturday.

First-year coach Duane Ticknor will catch the flight, then catch his breath before saying goodbye to the team that gave the Mad Ants (27-25) their first winning season and first playoffs appearance.

“This is one of the easiest teams I’ve ever had to coach,” Ticknor said. “They were coachable, they listened, they got along on and off the court and they were competitive; they hated to lose.”

And for the last one-third of the season, they didn’t lose much.

Despite a season-ending stretch in which they won 11 of their final 15 games, the Mad Ants dropped their final regular-season game at Tulsa, then fell twice to Santa Cruz in the best-of-three playoffs series.

“The season itself was fine,” Ticknor said. “The ending wasn’t what we wanted it to be.

“That’s a good basketball team,” he said of Santa Cruz. “They played their best, and we didn’t. A lot of times during the regular season, you can get by on playing hard and everything. It gets to the playoffs sometimes, talent kind of takes over because everyone’s playing hard.

“The last five or six weeks of the season, we didn’t lose too many games. We beat all the teams we should have beaten. We didn’t throw games away to put ourselves in a position to where we we’re at.”

After losing 10 of their first 13 games, the team needed to rebuild. Veteran point guard Walker Russell Jr. was traded. No. 1 draft pick JaJuan Johnson, the former Purdue standout, was ineffective, and also traded.

Former Notre Dame forward Luke Harangody came in to give the Mad Ants scoring and rebounding, averaging nearly 20 points and 12 rebounds a game. Because a surgically repaired knee flared up, Harangody left the team.

On top of that, veteran Ron Howard, who had shifted to the point guard spot, had two bouts with injuries (knee and wrist) that forced him to miss 15 games.

That’s when 6-foot-6 rookie Tony Mitchell took over. The University of Alabama product who won the D-League slam dunk championship at the NBA All-Star weekend broke the single-game Ants scoring record with 47 points against Austin. He broke the record again, scoring 49 in a 125-112 win at Sioux Falls that clinched the Mad Ants’ playoffs berth.

Mitchell scored 20 points in Saturday’s loss at Santa Cruz, and Howard had 25.

Who will return next season, Ticknor isn’t sure.

“I’m going to meet with everyone individually when we get back,” he said. “The next couple of days, (president) Jeff (Potter) and I will sit down, and I will meet with them as a group and I’ll meet with them as individuals. We’ll try to plan out what their future is – not only their immediate future, but next year, too.

“I think it’s important that they know we’re there to help them. They helped us to go the way we wanted, now we’ll help them along their journey and the way they want to go. Obviously I’d take all of them back if I could. I know that’s not going to happen.”

stwarden@jg.net

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