DULUTH - Newton needed to do everything it could and then some to beat Milton in the state semifinals at the Gwinnett Arena Thursday. But when you're playing a more talented team and it plays perhaps its best game of the season, there isn't much you can do. And so it went for the Rams who saw their dream season come to and end with an 86-54 defeat.
"We shot 45 percent in the first half, but it didn't matter. They shot 58," Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. "That was probably their best game of the season. They played outstanding and there really isn't much you can say when they hit seven threes and half of them from pro range, I think they could have beaten a lot of college teams tonight, I really do. I don't think there is a team in the state that can play with them in any classification if you play like that. Now they don't play like that every night.
"They're a great basketball team and they put on a clinic tonight in shooting, there's no doubt about that."
The Rams finished with a 30-2 record and the region 2-AAAAA championship. Milton advanced to play Westlake, who topped Central Gwinnett in overtime.
The Eagles shot a blistering 61 percent for the game while Newton shot a respectable 45 percent. The problem was, Milton hit eight threes including five from sophomore Evan Nolte.
Julian Royal led all scores with 22 points and was one of four Eagles in double figures. Shannon Scoot and Dai-Jon Parker chipped in with 16 and 13 respectively.
Derrick Henry was the lone Ram in double figures, scoring 18 points while Darius Miller and Tevin Bradley had nine and seven points.
Milton came out firing from the outset, scoring nine quick points before Darius Miller sank a pair of free throws to get Newton on the board. The Eagles built a 10-2 lead over the first three minutes of the opening quarter and it wasn't until the 4:08 mark that the Rams picked up their first bucket off a Tevin Bradley layup.
The Eagles were on from downtown. Nolte drained three 3-pointers in the first quarter and Milton hit five overall to build an 11-point lead heading into the second.
Nolte and the Eagles continued to have the hot hand from beyond the arc in the second. After a Miller bucket to open the second, Nolte hit his fourth three and the Eagles kept pouring it on from outside and built a 35-19 lead with 3:45 to go until halftime.
Dai-Jon Parker's dunk with 2:52 to go in the half pushed the lead to 37-19 but the Rams got two free throws after a technical for holding on the rim.
Milton didn't seem to care. The Eagles came back down after a Newton basket and Nolte hit his fifth three of the half. The Eagles closed out the half on a 16-7 run and led 46-26 at the break.
"We shot 45 percent in the first half which is not bad but 58 percent and seven threes? You can't compete with that," Rasmussen said. "We've done that to other people. We've beaten teams 70 something to 40 something so I guess it was our turn. They have a lot of talent, they're well-coached and they were on fire. We shot it decent - they were on fire."
Milton also showed its ability to get our on the break. Each mistake the Rams made, the Eagles capitalized.
"We had eight turnovers in the first half and that's 16 points," Rasmussen said. "You can't afford to do that, especially when they're hitting threes. We gave up transition lay-ups on some silly turnovers and they hit a bunch of threes and that's a bad mixture."
Things didn't get much easier for Newton in the third quarter. The Rams fought hard but Milton continued to hit shots. It seemed like every time Newton scored, the Eagles scored and then some.
"I knew they could shoot the ball but I hoped they wouldn't be on," Rasmussen said. "Well, they were on. They were on fire. It didn't matter who they played tonight. It just happened to be us. I mean, they shot the lights out. Nobody's defense to guard pro 3-pointers by guys that are 6'7" so there's really not much you could say."
Newton showed its resolve toward the end of the third quarter. In danger of falling behind by 30 and playing a shortened final period, the Rams finished the period on a 6-0 run to cut it 24. It was as close as the Rams would get down the stretch.
"You have to take your hats off to them they played a great game," Rasmussen said. "If we played our best game of the season, we still wouldn't have won. I knew we had to play our best game and they may have played theirs.
"You know, we're a quality basketball team but you couldn't tell. I mean we gave up 45 points per game on the season and they dropped 86 on us. If they play like that again tomorrow, Westlake doesn't have a prayer. Now if they don't - if they don't hit, Westlake has a chance. But I don't see it personally."
Despite the loss, Newton posted the best record since 1965 in school history when the Rams went 35-1 and lost in the first round of the state tournament. The Final Four appearance is the eight in Newton's history and first under Rasmussen. The Rams last made it to the Final Four in 2005 under Ron Bradley. Rasmussen was his assistant.
To put the season in perspective, Newton went 17-0 in Region 2-AAAAA - the first team to do so, and was perfect at home. Their only loss before Thursday came at the hands of Richmond Academy, which lost to defending Class AAAA state champion Miller Grove in the Final Four of the 4A playoffs Wednesday night.
"We can't hang our heads," Rasmussen said. "We don't have a nationally recognized team. We don't have three guys inside the ESPN top-60, you know. We have some hard-working seniors and solid juniors and we had great chemistry and battled hard.
"We went 30-2 and made it to the Final Four. We have no regrets."