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Posted: December 2, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Revved up rivalry

Tigers look to take down Rams for second straight road win

Rarely is a basketball game between county rivals Alcovy and Newton ever dull. Quite the contrary. Most of the time they come down to the fourth quarter. When the two get together tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. at Newton, you can expect another tight battle.

After the Rams handed Alcovy a loss at home in the first game last year, the Tigers exacted revenge with a thrilling 48-47 at Newton. It was also the first time one of the county teams defeated the Rams on their home court and one of only two home losses the past two seasons. It's safe to say they remember the loss well. That's not to say Alcovy feels any pity for them. 

Over the five years the two teams have played a pair of games against each other, Newton has an 8-2 edge. In fact, Newton coach Rick Rasmussen has dominated county opponents when you throw in the Eastside matchups. He’s 21-3 against the two county rivals. But recent results are what's on the minds of both teams and it’s the Tigers who are coming off a win in the most recent matchup. 

“We have had some exciting games with them,” Rasmussen said. “I expect this game to be a tough, hard-fought contest from beginning to end and we know we will have to play extremely well to have a chance to succeed.”

The Rams opened the season with a win over Walnut Grove and haven’t played in more than a week. The Tigers on the other hand are coming off a loss to Morgan County last week. They play Stone Mountain tonight.

The matchup is a contrast of styles at the most fundamental level. Newton wants to control the tempo on offense and thrives in the half court while Alcovy dials up pressure in the open floor. The Tigers like to press the inbound pass and pick up the ball early and often. Alcovy’s pressure forces a lot of turnovers which lead to fast break points. But the Tigers are susceptible to foul trouble. 

“You have to give Alcovy a lot of credit for playing tough defense. It becomes difficult to run a college-style motion offense against a defense that plays full court, grabbing and gambling so much,” Rasmussen said. “We tell our guys that they just need to take what the defense gives them and step up to the challenge of their physicality and aggressiveness. You can’t back down.”

While the Rams won’t back down, they can ill-afford to get into a track meet with Alcovy. Headlined by Devon Edwards, Alcovy has perhaps its most veteran group together and its used to playing in head coach Eugene Brown’s up tempo, defensive scheme.

“They have one of their best teams, so we are not taking them lightly at all,” Rasmussen said. “Traditionally we have been able to attack their press and get the ball out of trap situations, which has allowed us to be able to outnumber them in transition. Whenever a team gambles, they are going to also give something up.” 

Newton has been successful against the Tigers primarily because they're disciplined and don't turn the ball over much. In the previous two years in particular, breaking the press hasn't been such an issue. It very well may not be Saturday too. But the Rams had veteran guards who handled the ball well the pas several seasons. Now they’ll venture into the relative unknown.

Stephen Croone and Justin Thompson are Newton’s primary ball handlers and both are solid with the ball. But neither was tasked to be the primary option last year. While both played extended minutes a year ago, Croone in particular, neither has faced a swarming defense as the main facilitator. 

That said, both are capable of handling it. What’s more, the Rams could take advantage albeit cautiously as the Tigers won’t relent regardless of the score or situation.

“If you attack it properly, with patience and precision, but it is much easier said than done,” Rasmussen said. “In practice we have our second team emulating their press and really being physical on our first team. We know the referees unfortunately don’t call half or more of the hand-checking fouls and grabbing that goes on in a game vs. a defense like theirs, so we have to practice going against it in practice.”

If it comes down to a half court game, Newton has the advantage. So far this season both teams have been good on the glass. Newton won’t look to press much but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to see the Rams pick up the ball at half court. 

As it usually seems to play out though, whichever team is able to execute its gameplan best will likely win. In the past, the Rams have been able to handle Alcovy’s pressure thanks to keeping the turnovers down. Make no mistake about it though. Newton will turn the ball over and probably more than it’s accustomed too. How they handle that will be a key. Without the experience of a Derrick Henry in the backcourt, the Rams will get to see what they’re made of. 

For the Tigers, it’s an opportunity to make a statement.

“We will have to play very disciplined basketball, and it is early in the season, so I am looking forward to seeing how these guys respond to the challenge,” Rasmussen said. “This will be a good early test for us, before we start region play at M.L. King on Tuesday. We know that they want us to beat badly, and they have a veteran group, so we will have to be on our game. We are hoping for a great crowd as the county rivalry makes it that much more attractive to the county residents.”

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