An evening years in the making finally arrived Saturday night, with professional basketball coming to Greensboro. For their first contest the Swarm welcomed the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, a franchise celebrating 10 seasons of their own.
In the end, the Swarm walked away from their first game with a 120-99 loss. Mike Tobey impressed with 21 points and 11 rebounds to lead the way for Greensboro. But Saturday night was never going to be about a basketball score; it was about the start of something special in the heart of basketball country.
Greensboro’s night began long before tip-off, with a ceremonial ribbon cutting outside of the Field House. Not only was Saturday’s game the first one played at the newly renovated arena, but it was the start of professional basketball in Greensboro, a new era for a region proud of its college hoops success.
On the court before the players were introduced, a collection of names crucial to the Swarm’s existence were presented to fans. From Hornet executives such as GM Rich Cho or VP James Jordan (brother of CHA owner Michael), to local figures such as Mayor Nancy Vaughan, it was an impressive show of support from all sides for opening night.
For an organization experiencing a complete night of firsts, things ran incredibly well. Sergant Swarm, the newly revealed mascot, ran around the arena engaging fans. Every stoppage saw a well-oiled schedule of entertainment, and local hip hop star Bdaht ran things as the in arena host.
Not everything was a slam dunk, as little growing pains showed up. The announcer at times missed referencing his game sheet, mispronouncing names and transferring UVA grad Mike Tobey’s diploma to Virginia Tech. But from PR director Kat Kienle to head coach Noah Gillespie, the Swarm showed a level of professionalism befitting a team playing its 101st game.
The game showed a level of growing pains as well, as the Swarm got off to a shaky start. After securing the opening tip, Fort Wayne threw a wide open alley oop within seconds. The Red Ants blitzed them en route to 80 first half points, and a 43-point halftime lead. The Swarm scored 37 points in the half, a total exceeded by Fort Wayne in each of the two quarters.
Greensboro looked lost on defense, missing rotations and frequently standing around with points and shrugs after a made opponent basket. On offense they couldn’t gain separation, taking every shot with a hand in their face. It was a disappointing start for a team with high hopes.
The crowd never lost faith in their team, cheering loudly and stepping into their role seamlessly. The Swarm in-arena team did a great job of engaging the crowd, but they were North Carolina basketball fans. They knew how to support a team, and that’s exactly what they did. If the referee made a call that didn’t meet their approval, they overwhelmed with boos. If a player turned the ball over, they called out their support. This was a veteran crowd, even if the organization was a rookie.
The Swarm came out of halftime a different team, changing to a smaller lineup that spread the floor and gave center Mike Tobey room to work. On defense changed from aggressive help rotations – which turned into muddled chaos in the first half – into fluid switches that kept Fort Wayne ball handlers from driving into the paint.
The offense opened up in the second half, with Tobey cleaning the offensive glass and backup PG Prince Williams sparking their perimeter game. After just 37 points in the first half, the Swarm scored 36 in the next quarter.
But the Swarm’s play in the second half was night and day on the defensive end, and that’s what gives fans and coaches alike hope moving forward. After giving up 80 points in the first 24 minutes, they gave up only 29 over the next 22 minutes of game play, until the fouling game began in earnest late in the 4th.
The defense sparked momentum in transition, and Greensboro began putting together runs that pulled them from an abyss of a deficit to a respectable finish. 7-1 to start the 3rd became 12-5, then 22-9. The 4th quarter began with an 11-4 burst. Down 43 at the half, the Swarm came as close as 15 in the final frame.
That is what the Swarm will build on moving forward. The bright lights of a new arena will be old news by the second game, and the athleticism of NBA talent will be expected. There won’t be another 80-37 half, nor the same defensive lapses. This squad showed in the second half that Steve Clifford’s mantra of defense first has spread to Greensboro as well.
Coach Noah Gillespie is a capable coach, one who kept his team engaged despite an insurmountable hole and made halftime adjustments that shocked and bewildered the opposing team. Damien Wilkins is a veteran player who will keep this team glued together, and Mike Tobey will soon be a star at this level as he tries out for NBA teams every night in a Swarm uniform.
If Charlotte wanted a mini version of themselves in Greensboro, they seem to have accomplished it. The facilities, the production, the staff, and most of all the team look just like the Hornets, right down to early deficits and insect-related puns.
And if the team of the second half shows up more often than not, the Swarm could match the recent success of the big league team down the road.