The Long Island Nets’ Thursday night matchup against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants could have easily been a repeat of the two squads’ outing the day before when the Pacers affiliate beat the Nets affiliate. A mere 24 hours later, the same two teams tipped off at the same venue, in the same colors, with largely the same rosters. Not the same result.
For the first 47 minutes of game time, nothing seemed to divert much from Wednesday’s 125-115 victory by Fort Wayne.
Despite the final score, the first meeting between the Nets and Mad Ants was close throughout. With the clock winding down, though, the Nets were unable to score for the final three minutes as Fort Wayne successfully forced the ball out of Craig Randall’s hands, forcing others to beat them. This time, Long Island took home the prize, 115-112.
With the calendar turned to a new day, the Nets got right to work. Hours before tip-off, head coach Adam Caporn held a walk-through at Nassau Coliseum, installing new sets within Long Island’s offense — but also getting the ball to Randall, the local tryout player who has become the team’s star and high scorer at 27.3 points per game.
“He’s playing so well, we can’t let them just deny him all game,” Caporn explained.
The Nets were able to feature Randall throughout the night to the tune of 22 points, six rebounds and seven assists. But with the crunch time approaching and the score close, the Mad Ants were back up to their old Mad Tricks, pressuring Randall immediately on the catch and double-teaming him all over the court.
With 53 seconds remaining, the Nets put the ball directly in Randall’s hands as he brought it up to start the offense. He gets trapped at midcourt by Fort Wayne, but is able to give the ball up to the release valve. Bryce Brown nails the corner three.
That three gave the Nets a four-point lead with less than a minute remaining, even if Long Island wasn’t quite out of the woods just yet.
Now of the Mad Ants, former Long Island (and Brooklyn) Net Justin Anderson responded with a triple of his own on the other end, and Long Island’s lead was back down to one point, 112-113. Fort Wayne forced the ball out of Randall’s hands once again, and Josh Gray was unable to generate a good look for the Nets; they suffered a 24-second violation.
With just under four seconds, the Mad Ants had one last chance at reclaiming the lead. A last-second three was off from Justin Anderson, and the Nets escaped with the victory.
Justin Anderson is off in a potential game-winner, and the Nets escape with the victory! pic.twitter.com/OZnhV8Za3t— Alec Sturm (@Alec_Sturm) January 21, 2022
(Postgame, the score was changed to 115-112, as an Adam Woodbury layup was missed by the official scorers during play. In the G League, it happens.)
So, what was different about Thursday night? The Nets were once again forced to operate without their best player facilitating down the stretch, but were able to come away with the victory this time around.
“We know he’s going to get some attention, get trapped … we want that. And then to have him give it up and then we play 4-on-3, I think that’s definitely to our advantage. [The problem] was where he was face-guarded and denied and the rest of us played awkwardly and [weren’t] sure what to do. So I thought we got on the same page there and solved that problem and Craig is an unselfish player, even though he’s a very good scorer. And when he’s trapped there, he doesn’t think about it, he just gives it up. And that was our offense down the home stretch, and it was good for us.”
The final “stop” from the Nets on Anderson’s game-winning attempt was fittingly made by defensive ace — and rookie —Brandon Rachal, who tallied 24 points and eight rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting from the field, as well as registering four steals and three blocks.
Rachal has struggled with foul trouble, but his “put it all on the floor” attitude proved invaluable for Long Island on Thursday. Postgame, Caporn praised him and his partner in the front-court, center Adam Woodbury:
“What a game by him. A lot of guys played well, but Brandon and Woodbury were just warriors. At our halftime, we really weren’t with our rebounding, and we were able to turn that around to our advantage, and those two obviously did a lot of that damage. Couldn’t be more impressed or proud of those guys or the toughness they showed.”
The Nets will next face the G League Ignite, a unique team made up of highly-touted high school prospects and former NBA veterans. With national media attention coming on Sunday, Rachal conceded post game that a high-profile matchup brings extra motivation to perform.
“I know there are going to be a lot of scouts watching that game, [and] people probably aren’t going to expect us to win,” he says. “We’re going to be underdogs, and that’s what I love. We’re going to go out there and just play hard, play to win, put on a show in front of these fans and hopefully get noticed by some scouts for me and my teammates.”
The Nets and Ignite will tip-off Sunday at 1pm at Nassau Coliseum. The game will air on NBA TV and the YES App.