The Dancing Bear circus is extending its run.
The Maine Red Claws rallied from eight points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Fort Wayne Mad Ants 124-119 before a crowd of 1,259 Wednesday night at the Portland Expo and win their first NBA Development League playoff series in franchise history.
Jalen Jones scored 13 of his game-high 30 points in the final nine minutes and Guerschon “The Dancing Bear” Yabusele came off the bench for 26 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in only his fifth game.
“It felt great,” Jones said. “We were down on ourselves by letting them come back last game. We just had to let that one go and try to bounce back tonight, and that’s what we did.”
The Red Claws advance to the Eastern Conference finals for another best-of-three series against top-seeded Raptors 905, the Toronto affiliate that swept No. 4 Canton in two games. Second-seeded Maine will host Game 1 at 5 p.m. Sunday before the series moves to Mississauga, Ontario, for Game 2 Wednesday. If a third game is necessary, it would be played Thursday night in Ontario.
After Atlantic Division titles in each of the previous two seasons ended in playoff frustration, the Claws finally tasted postseason success. Until this year, they had been 0-6 in playoff games.
They snapped that streak with a 110-106 overtime victory last week in Fort Wayne despite never holding a lead in the second half. In Game 2 Monday night at the Expo, the Mad Ants returned the favor by outscoring Maine 34-22 in the fourth quarter to eke out a 111-110 victory. Two free throws by Trey McKinney-Jones with 18 seconds left gave Fort Wayne control of a game it had trailed since late in the first quarter.
The crowd Wednesday night was treated to the second game in Portland for Yabusele, a first-round draft pick (16th overall) of the Boston Celtics last June who grew up in France with Congolese parents and played most of the winter in China. When that season ended, the 21-year-old power forward joined the Red Claws, but only after a delay involving both a sprained ankle and problems securing a work visa.
Listed as 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds, Yabusele showed surprising agility for someone with the body of an NFL lineman. That he seemed to be enjoying himself on the court further endeared him to the local fan base.
He hit 10 of 14 shots Wednesday night, including a pair of 3-point attempts. With 6.2 seconds remaining, he sank two free throws to put the game out of reach.
“He’s a crowd favorite,” Maine Coach Scott Morrison said. “When someone’s that big and that agile and has a good nickname, it’s inevitable.”
As expected, Game 3 was tight from the beginning. The Mad Ants took an early four-point lead on a Tyler Hansbrough putback dunk but Maine responded with a 13-4 run to close the first quarter with a 35-29 advantage. Jones and Arthur Edwards capped the run with 3 pointers.
In the second quarter, the Claws extended their cushion to double digits for the first time after a follow-dunk by Jordan Mickey (22 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks) and his ensuing free throw gave Maine a 43-33 lead.
Mickey had fouled out in the final minute of Game 2, but only picked up two fouls Wednesday night.
“I didn’t want to let my team down,” he said. “It’s a big victory for the franchise. We got the first-ever playoff win in Fort Wayne and the first-ever series win for Crustacean Nation. I’m sure they’re happy. We’re happy. We’re going to continue.”
An early high point for Maine came midway through the second period in a sequence that started with a Coron Williams 3-pointer, continued with Yabusele swatting a Marquis Teague layup attempt, resulting in Williams leading a subsequent three-on-one fast break that ended with Abdel Nader floating an alley-oop to the hustling Dancing Bear for a dunk to give the Claws a 55-43 lead.
“He made that play possible with his defensive effort,” Nader said, “and he ran that floor faster than I’ve seen anybody run the floor in a long time. I just tried to make the right play.”
Undaunted, the Mad Ants called time, regrouped, and uncorked a 13-2 run to pull within a point at 57-56. Yabusele, who made all six shots he attempted in the first half, delivered a 3-pointer to stop the bleeding and Maine went into intermission with a 67-62 lead.
Fort Wayne surged in the third quarter behind Travis Leslie and Stephan Hicks and took an 87-81 lead. The Red Claws responded with a late run capped by a Yabusele fast-break layup in the final seconds to enter the fourth quarter trailing 91-90.
Demetrius Jackson, who scored 30 points in the Game 1 victory, managed only two Wednesday night before landing awkwardly on an unsuccessful drive midway through the third quarter. He missed practice Tuesday because of flu-like symptoms and did not return.
“He gave it a good effort,” Morrison said of Jackson, who dished out five assists in 20 minutes. “He won the first game for us. His teammates had to pick him up (Wednesday).”
McKinney-Jones converted a three-point play early in the fourth to give Fort Wayne its biggest lead of the night, 100-92, but Maine responded with an 8-0 run to tie it at 100 on a Williams 3-pointer.
“He did a great job, not only hitting those shots but also keeping the guys level-headed,” Morrison said of the 27-year-old Williams, a holdover from last season. “We have a tendency to get emotional and rise and fall with the flow of the game. It was important that we stayed level when we got down there in the fourth quarter.”
The Claws took the lead for good on a spinning Mickey drive that he turned into a three-point play and a 108-105 lead with just under six minutes left. Fort Wayne pulled within 116-115 on a McKinney-Jones 3-pointer with 45 seconds left, but Nader threw down a dunk in traffic with 28 seconds left near the end of the shot clock for a 118-115 lead.
“I saw that they were worried about Guerschon popping, because he was killing them with that all game,” said Nader, who finished with 26 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and only two turnovers, “so they kind of left me a little bit and I had an open lane.”
McKinney-Jones, who led Fort Wayne with 30 points, quickly drove baseline but his shot rolled around the rim and out. Yabusele ripped down the rebound and Maine made six free throws over the final 19 seconds to clinch the game and the series.
“I was saying to the guys they’re going to have to have a spare game ball ready,” Morrison said of Yabusele. “Because one of these times he’s going to go up and bust that thing when he grabs it. He grabs it with a force. He gets above the rim. He’s really made a big impact in all areas of the game but especially on the glass for us.”
The Red Claws held a 46-35 rebounding advantage Wednesday night, the first time in the series they were able to pull down more than Fort Wayne. The Mad Ants also shot a miserable 6 of 24 from deep and made only 14 3-pointers in the series. Maine had 11 Wednesday night, in 26 attempts.
“We missed a lot,” Fort Wayne Coach Steve Gansey said. “That was the series right there. The fact that we were in every single game, and it came down to a possession, pretty much, that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
NOTES: Hansborough, a seven-year NBA veteran, finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds. “It says a lot for how good a player he is when 19 and 11 is a good game for us,” Morrison said. “But it was a good game for us.” … Williams, 27, was 4 for 4 from the field including three 3-pointers. He also had four assists and just one turnover in 28 minutes. “I’m older than a lot of these guys, and I’ve played in many more games,” he said. “You just try to be a calming presence.” … Jackson said after the game that his ankle was fine. … In the Western Conference finals, No. 1 Oklahoma City will face No. 3 Rio Grande Valley in a best-of-three series scheduled to begin Thursday night in Texas. … A big part of Maine’s fourth-quarter comeback was going big, with Jones, Mickey and Yabusele keeping Hansbrough off the glass. “We tried to fill up the paint a little bit more because they were beating us to the rim,” Morrison said, “and get a little bit more length on our contests of their shots. I don’t know if that was one of the (comeback) sfactors, but it seemed to coincide with that time frame of the game.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or: