4-3 mm wizards 1

Dakota’s Justin Johnson (7) passes the ball off between two Sioux Falls defenders Tuesday night.

The Dakota Wizards have made it look easy the last couple of weeks, but the Sioux Falls Skyforce made them work for it Tuesday.

In the end, the result was the same.

The Wizards — who never led until the fourth quarter — battled back from a 17-point deficit to score a critical 102-96 victory in their final home game of the regular season. It was their fifth straight win.

With Springfield losing to Erie, the Wizards (28-20) took sole possession of first place in the East Conference. With two games left, Dakota is one game ahead of both the Armor and BayHawks, with Canton 1½ games back.

Stefhon Hannah led a balanced attack with 16 points. Leo Lyons and Chris Wright chipped in 15 each.

It was their work on the defensive end — and on the glass — that allowed the Wizards to pull this one out.

The Skyforce shot 61.5 percent (24-for-39) from the floor in the first half. But in the fourth quarter the Wizards clamped down, limiting Sioux Falls to 14 points on 25 percent (4-for-16) shooting.

“We were just more aggressive,” Bjorkgren said. “We did a better job of stopping the initial dribble penetration and getting to the paint. It was either off the dribble or direct post passes. We were trying to limit their touches deeper.”

Former Wizard Curtis Withers helped Sioux Falls get off to a fast start. Withers, who averaged just 7.3 points in 13 previous games in the Civic Center this

season, poured in 22.

The trio of Withers,

Marqus Blakely (24 points) and Trey Gilder (20), helped Sioux Falls break out to a

38-21 lead.

The only way the

Wizards kept things from getting completely out of hand was with rebounding. Dakota finished the night with a 58-41 edge, thanks largely to Marcus Dove, who hauled down 12, and Lyons, who grabbed nine.

“It was the whole game long,” Bjorkgren said. “Even when we were down, we were 11 up on the glass. It kept extending, up 13, up 18. ... It was getting us second and third chances and limiting them to one.”

The Wizards patiently chipped away at the Sioux Falls lead, cutting it to 61-50 at the half and 82-79 after three.

Ten straight points — four to end the third, six to start the fourth — helped swing the momentum. The Wizards took their first lead of the game on a lay-up by Lyons with 11:05 left.

The biggest shot of the game came courtesy of Hannah. With 1:25 to play and time about to run out on the shot clock, Hannah banked in an off-balance 3-pointer. The bailout was reminiscent of the half-court buzzer-beater Hannah made Monday against Bakersfield.

Dakota’s depth, a critical factor as the Wizards have rattled off eight wins in nine tries, manifested itself again. Dakota’s bench outscored the Skyforce reserves 39-4.

“Even better than that, our bench was a part of that run where we had a bunch of consecutive stops in a row,” Bjorkgren said. “I have to praise them about that.”

The Wizards will take a five-game winning streak into Fort Wayne. Dakota will wrap up the regular season with a pair of games against the Mad Ants, who have the league’s worst record.

“It’s another good team, another team that we’ve got to fight and battle with,” Bjorkgren said. “We’ve got to be ready to go.”

PLAYOFF FORMAT: Eight teams qualify for the D-League playoffs — the two conference winners and the next six teams based on winning percentage.

Each of the three rounds will be a best-of-3 series. The lower seed will host the first game, with the higher seed having home court for the second, and if necessary, third games.

The D-League is still using the format it adopted a couple of seasons ago in which the teams with the best records get to choose their first-round opponents from the teams seeded fifth through eighth.

Los Angeles has clinched the best record, giving the D-Fenders the first choice. The East Conference champion would choose second.

SEE YOU LATER?: Wright’s second assignment with the Wizards came to an end with Tuesday’s game.

Travis Schlenk, the assistant general manager of the Golden State Warriors, said Wright will likely be back for a third stint. Although it will depend on the schedule, Schlenk said that Wright is likely to be back for the start of the D-League playoffs and stay for the duration of the postseason.

BATTLE OF THE DAKOTAS: With their victory over Sioux Falls, the Wizards improved to 54-37 all-time in regular season games against the Skyforce. Sioux Falls holds a 4-3 edge in the postseason, with three of the victories coming while Dave Joerger was coaching the Skyforce.

Sioux Falls 32 61 82 96

Wizards 21 50 79 102

SIOUX FALLS (96): Anthony Mason 7-17 2-4 17, Curtis Withers 6-7 10-12 22, Trey Gilder 8-14 4-4 20, Marqus Blakely 10-19 4-6 24, Dominique Coleman 4-7 0-2 9, Gabe Pruitt 1-6 0-0 2, Brian Hamilton 1-3 0-0 2, Yemi Ogunoye 0-2 0-2 0, Will Foster 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 37-75 20-30 96.

WIZARDS (102): Edwin Ubiles 4-6 0-0 9, Chris Wright 7-10 1-2 15, Marucs Dove 4-11 5-5 13, Stefhon Hannah 7-18 0-0 16, Maurice Baker 3-8 3-3 10, Tommy Smith 4-8 0-0 8, Shy Ely 3-7 3-4 10, Taylor Griffin 2-5 0-0 4, Leo Lyons 6-8 3-6 15, Justin Johnson 0-5 2-2 2, Mike Anderson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 40-86 17-22 102.

3-pointers: SF 2-13 (Coleman 1-3, Mason 1-4, Gilder 0-1, Blakely 0-1, Hamilton 0-1), W 5-13 (Hannah 2-6, Ubiles 1-1, Baker 1-2, Ely 1-3, Lyons 0-1). Rebounds: SF 33 (Gilder 8), W 51 (Dove 12). Assists: SF 18 (Withers 4), W 17 (Johnson 4). Steals: SF 14 (Blakely 4), W 7 (Hannah 3). Blocks: SF 8 (Gilder 4), W 5. Turnovers: SF 19, W 21. Total fouls: SF 21, W 28. Fouled out: W, Wright. Technical fouls: SF 1 (Blakely), W 1 (Defensive three second).

A — 2,646.

Records: SF 14-34, W 28-20.

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Reach sports editor Lou Babiarz at 250-8243 or Lou.Babiarz@bismarcktribune.com.