SHAWNEE, OKLA — Things were looking desperate for the Potawatomi Fire. They trailed by nine points as they started the fourth quarter, only to see the Seattle Super Hawks expand that margin in the first few minutes of the final frame. The Fire were staring down their first loss of the year at home and first loss of the playoffs. And a potential winner-take-all game three on Tuesday night.
Following a three-pointer by Seattle that gave the visitors a 105-86 lead with 9:47 remaining in the game, the Fire would begin their huge comeback. Behind a raucous crowd and a steely resolve, the Fire would go on an incredible 38-9 run to close the game, securing their place in the TBL Finals. In just their second year as a pro basketball franchise, the Fire defeated the Super Hawks 124-114, sweeping the best-of-three regional final series to advance to the national championship round of The Basketball League Playoffs.
“I’m just really pleased for these young men,“ said Fire head coach Mark Dannhoff. “I noticed today that it was our 98th practice through 4 and a half months. Just how hard they played, how much they’ve committed to sacrificing personal goals, to accomplish something as a team that’s bigger than ourselves. They showed it late in the fourth quarter. They showed their grit and that they weren’t gonna give up and that they wanted it bad enough that they were gonna do whatever it took. They went out there and did just that.”
T.J. Maston led the Fire with 35 points on 16 of 22 shooting to go along with eight rebounds. As they have throughout the season, the two Fire All-Stars, Deshawn Munson and Chuck Guy, had double-doubles in the victory. The reigning TBL MVP Deshawn Munson had 22 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. 2023 MVP candidate Chuck Guy had another stellar game across the board, going for 17 points, 13 assists, four rebounds, and four steals. Both Guy and Munson played the entire 48 minutes, which for Guy makes 10 times this season for the Ironman (including five of six playoff games!)
On the play of some of his top stars: “All three of them (T.J., Deshawn, and Chuck) just were exceptional tonight in all kinds of different ways, especially defensively. They all had good offensive nights as well, but it was their defense that ignited everybody else and carries us to the next next level, where we are right now. And I got to be honest. For Ruston Hayward, the minutes he gave; Tevin (Foster) gave us; the minutes Paul Harrison gave us, Ricky Artis II. I mean, everybody was ready. And the enthusiasm and excitement on the bench? Yeah. Throughout the whole game, even though we were down 19, they never gave up. They kept telling us that, you know, hey, we’ve been here before, keep fighting, keep fighting.”
Two of the biggest keys for the Fire during their comeback were K.D. Moore and Ruston Hayward. Moore had 16 points, eight rebounds, and a pair of both assists and steals while Hayward, in his first action since game one versus Enid on June 1, had 15 points, three rebounds, and three steals off the bench. The reigning TBL Defensive Player of the Year Lyle Hexom had 11 points including three from long range while battling foul trouble. Ricky Artis II tallied five points and three rebounds.
Though not as substantial as in their game one win, the Fire had the edge in points in the paint, 70-54, and in rebounds, 52-35. The Fire also were tops in bench points at 23-9. Both teams shot over 50% for the game, with the Fire at 55% (42/76) and the Hawks at 51% (42/82). Seattle took and made more threes, going 13 of 35 for 37% while the Fire were just 6 of 22 for 27%. But as has been the custom throughout the year, the Fire moved the ball and attacked the basket. The Fire were 34/48 for 71% from the line while Seattle was 17/25 for 68%.
The Fire led by one 32-31 after one but the teams were tied at the break with 57 each. Seattle took a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter behind hot-shooting from beyond the arc. Their largest lead was the 19 point edge before the furious Fire rally.
Alphonso Anderson was outstanding for the Super Hawks with 43 points, six rebounds, and four assists before fouling out down the stretch. Emeche Wells also had 26 points in the losing effort.
Dannhoff, who prior to the game, was named Coach of the Year by TBL, was highly complimentary of the FireLake Arena crowd. “I’ll tell you what — that crowd was outstanding the entire night, from the moment we ran out of the tunnel to start the game. They were involved, they were loud, they were excited, and they just kept us rolling, even when we got down late and were trying to make that comeback. They were what kept us going, and we were pretty tired. But their enthusiasm, their excitement, the way they were cheering, it was just remarkable. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever been in 30-plus years as a coach.”
The Fire will now take on the St. Louis Griffins, the surprise team of this year’s playoffs. The first-year Griffins got hot late in the season and continued that run through the playoffs. St. Louis defeated the Albany Patroons 2-1 by capturing game three in Albany in a thriller also Monday night. After Albany had tied the game with a pair of free throws with five seconds left, the Griffins’ Timmy Goodwin hit a 15-foot jumper with 2 seconds left for the win.
Details on the upcoming finals series will be announced later on Tuesday. The Fire will likely travel to St. Louis for game one later this week before returning to Shawnee for games two and three (if necessary) sometime early next week.
Dannhoff remarked that the Griffins have been really good second half of the season and they’ve added some pieces. “They’ve really talented, very physical, very strong team, and defense-oriented, but yeah, can really score the basketball through their defense. It’ll be a battle. I mean, they’re very physical. We’re going to have to be strong with the ball, we’re going to have to make sure we value the basketball with good shots and not turn the ball over. Yet sit down and guard them, ‘cause they’ll be very aggressive.”
If they can’t make the games, fans can listen to the action on KGFF 100.9 FM /1450 AM / kgff.com, with Chris Cox on the play-by-play call live from St. Louis or Shawnee You can also watch the games on TBLTV.tv with a paid subscription. Cox’s radio call is the audio for the live stream for all Fire home games. St. Louis’s live stream is produced by the Griffin organization and features their hometown announcers.
NOTES: In ceremonies prior to the contest, Mark Dannhoff was named TBL Coach of the Year. The Fire Girls received Central Conference Best Dance Team. Referee Crystal Weeks was named Referee of the Year. Weeks was the crew chief for the game.
ABOUT THE FIRE AND THE BASKETBALL LEAGUE
The Potawatomi Fire just wrapped up their second TBL (The Basketball League) season in 2023. They were 21-3 in the regular season (a three-game win improvement from 2022) to earn the top seed in the Central Conference portion of the playoffs as well as homecourt advantage throughout the entire playoffs. The Fire are the first professional basketball team owned by a Native American tribe (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) in Oklahoma. The Fire compete in the Central Conference of TBL, a men’s professional basketball league, now with 49 teams in over 20 different states across the U.S. and Canada. The Fire organization was named the 2022 winner of the Jim Koch Award as TBL’s Best Ran Business, despite the Fire being a first-year franchise. The dance team of the Fire, the Fire Girls, were named Best Dance Team.
The TBL season begins in February and runs through June, concluding with a championship playoff tournament. The players that make up the rosters of the TBL teams are former NCAA (Division I, II or III) or NAIA athletes. Many have played in the NBA or NBA’s developmental G-League as well as professionally overseas for several years and are continuing their careers closer to home or seeking a larger contract in another professional league.
Story by Justin Wollard • Photo by Landon Kidney