The opening game of the Mad Ants’ season had promising signs.
Brian Bowen II totaled 22 points and 11 rebounds, helping to spark a Mad Ants comeback from a 14-point second-quarter deficit. Cassius Stanley, a rookie out of Duke, had 21 points. And Devin Robinson added 19 points and nine rebounds for Fort Wayne.
Nonetheless, the Mad Ants’ truncated, single-site season began with a 125-120 loss today to the Westchester Knicks at HP Field House in Orlando, Florida.
“It was a good, solid game overall for everybody at both ends of the floor,” Bowen said. “It was our first time playing together, and it was good to know we had some fighting spirit and didn’t back down. That’s all I wanted to see, how we overcome adversity. They went on their runs, but we went on our runs as well. Even though we lost, I saw a lot of positives, for sure.”
Jared Harper made 10 of 15 shots, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, for 31 points with 10 assists for the Knicks, who trailed 91-88 after Fort Wayne’s Rayshaun Hammonds converted a wide-open shot from beyond the arc with 9:35 remaining. The Knicks then took control with a 19-7 run, culminating with a Simisola Shittu layup with 5:01 left, and the game was never again really in doubt.
The Mad Ants, who converted 41% of their shots, got 14 points from Oshae Brissett, 12 points and six assists from Jalen Lecque, 11 points and six rebounds from Hammonds, and 10 points with seven rebounds Naz Mitrou-Long.
Helping matters for Fort Wayne was that they forced 26 turnovers, 15 more than did the Knicks.
“Yeah, we went to a ball-press and ball pressure is one of our pillars defensively. It’s what we like to do,” said Tom Hankins, who coached his first game for the Mad Ants. “In the one scrimmage that we had, it really caused some problems for Greensboro. We’ve just got to continue to do that.”
Westchester, which made 52% of its shots and won the rebounding battle 55-45, got 28 points and 15 rebounds from Ignas Brazdeikis. James Young added 20 points.
“We’ve got to team rebound,” Hankins said, noting the Mad Ants were at a significant size disadvantage. “We’ve got to smash rebound, sandwich their big guys with two littler guys, and take those guys out of the equation on the glass and let some other guards come in to clean it up.”
The Mad Ants continue their 15-game regular season 11 a.m. Thursday against the Delaware Blue Coats, who have yet to make their season debut. (The top eight teams will qualify for the single-elimination postseason.) While Delaware will have had the opportunity to scout Wednesday’s Mad Ants game, Fort Wayne is going in blind against the Blue Coats.
“We’ve just got to bring that same mentality,” Bowen said, “be aggressive at both ends of the floor, pressure the ball. … I feel like we had a lot of good shots today. And we had a lot of good stops. We’ve just got to continue that up and be aggressive.”
Stanley, who is on a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers, started strong by making four of his first six shots, including a step-back jumper from the elbow. Still, Westchester had built a 25-16 lead, thanks to Myles Powell turning a Fort Wayne turnover into a 3-point play.
The Mad Ants soon followed suit – Bowen, also on a two-way contract, intercepted the ball and flung a long pass to Brissett for a layup – but Westchester led 30-22 at the end of the first quarter thanks to 55% shooting and 12 Harper points.
The Knicks’ Brazdeikis’ put-back put his team up 43-29 with 8:41 left in the second quarter. But the Mad Ants rallied by following the lead of Bowen, who had 14 points, five rebounds, three steals and two assists by halftime, when Westchester’s lead was down to 53-50 – thanks largely to superior shooting, 44% to 34%.
The Mad Ants’ momentum continued early in the third quarter, when they took a 63-60 lead on a Robinson dunk that was set up by a Lecque bounce pass through a crowd.