Ashton Hagans remembers the 2015-16 season well. Not only because the point guard was a freshman starter for Newton, a perennial state tournament fixture in the state’s largest classification. But also because it was his first taste of playing on a Final Four stage.
Tyrease Brown remembers too. The junior wasn’t playing varsity yet, but he was a part of the program that fell 64-59 to Westlake back on Feb. 27, 2016. That team had budding stars like then-junior J.D. Notae, center Josh Tukes and Darvin Jones — graduated.
Dre Butler, a sophomore then, was also on that team, contributing about eight points and eight rebounds per game.
It wasn’t much salve for the hurt to know that Westlake ended up winning the Class AAAAAA (Georgia’s largest at the time) state crown. In fact, for Brown, although he wasn’t on the floor in that game, he still remembers the dejection.
In fact, Brown says it’s fueling their determination this time around.
“We got there my freshman year and we came up short,” Brown said. “Now we’re back at it. It feels good. It’s like we’ve got unfinished business in this round.”
When Newton found out it would face No. 2 Norcross in Saturday’s Final Four matchup in Buford, Hagans knew he would be leading his team to face another program with championship pedigree and talent — much like that 2015-16 Westlake squad.
“For me, I’m the only returning starter from last year, but I’ve also been to the final four my freshman year,” Hagans said. “I went to the Elite Eight Last year. So I’ve been there and I know what it is, and how it’s gonna be. How everybody’s going to come at us. How the crowd is going to be engaged in the game. I know I’ll have to help keep our players cool and just make sure we keep our heads in the game.”
For the Lady Rams, they know this historic moment extends beyond just them — Saturday is their first trip back to a Final Four since 1972 — but also to the entire state of Newton basketball, as it’s the first time in school district history two teams from either the same or different schools made it to the state semifinals in the same season.
In the aftermath, Newton senior Jurnee Smith was partly basking in the glory of that achievement, but also already bringing herself back to the reality that there’s still more out there for her and her teammates.
“We’re not going to overlook anybody,” she said. “We still have two more games we want to play. And to do that, we just have to play Lady Rams basketball. We’re not going to focus on anybody more than we focus on ourselves.”
Here’s a closer look at how both Newton teams matchup with their Final Four opponents.
The Matchup: No. 6 Newton Rams (27-3, 9-2 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) vs. No. 3 McEachern (22-5, 10-1 in Region 3-AAAAAAA).
The Venue: Saturday March 3, 2 p.m. at Buford City Arena, 2795 Sawnee Ave., Buford, GA.
If You Go: Tickets $15 at the door.
The Playmakers: Gotta love the way Newton Lady Rams head coach Tiffani Johnson endorses one of her key players in Jurnee Smith. Johnson said that the senior guard doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition she deserves, and Johnson is absolutely right. Although Lexii Chatman is typically the Rams’ leading scorer, it’s Smith who is almost always the team’s go-to ball handler. She’s a slasher who just finds ways to get to the rim. She can get hot from outside And knock down jumpers, and the poise she showed in pressure moments — particularly down the stretch against Cherokee in the Elite Eight — speaks of a player who’s just as mature cerebrally as she is gifted physically. Chatman and Smith Are a dynamic backcourt duo. Definitely one of the best in the state, although you may not hear that said much.
As for McEachern, the Lady Indians are a long team with athleticism to boot. Eight players 5-foot-8 or taller adorn McEachern’s roster, and players like Indiana signee Chanel Wilson and scorers such as Victoria Agyin and Jasmine Carson are all seniors with experience with this time of the year. McEachern has won four straight state championships, and five of the last six titles, so getting to this point is old-hat for coach Phyllis Arthur’s squad.
The Outlook: Johnson admitted her team played with some jitters early in the Elite Eight matchup with Cherokee, despite playing in the familiar confines of the Newton High gym and having the support of a raucous home crowd. She also acknowledged that those nerves will probably be with Newton the rest of the way. Playing against a team that has six seniors who know what it takes to win championships will likely ensure that Newton will be the only squad in danger of letting the moment be too big for them. However, the Rams won’t be intimidated by height, as they’ve proven time and again that they can overcome being a shorter squad. On the flip side, McEachern won’t feel outgunned by the Rams’ speed and quickness, as their combination of length and athleticism is more than formidable. That means it may likely come down to which coach can do enough to win the chess match of Xs and Os and team motivation, particularly in clutch moments.
The Matchup: No. 3 Newton (27-3, 9-1 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) at No. 2 Norcross (27-3, 11-1 in Region 7-AAAAAAA)
The Venue: Saturday March 3, 4 p.m. at Buford City Arena, 2795 Sawnee Ave., Buford, GA.
If You Go: Tickets $15 at the door.
The Playmakers: Many feel that Norcross should’ve been a nationally ranked team this season, along with McEachern who was No. 6 in the country before the Blue Devils handed the Indians a 75-55 loss in the Elite Eight Wednesday. And when you watch Norcross play, you can see why. Junior guard Kyle Sturdivant is a 4-star prospect who’s ranked No. 10 in Georgia for the Class of 2019 and the 15th ranked point guard in the nation. He’s got offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, Clemson and Miami. He’s a smooth guard who can get hot quickly from the perimeter. But then there’s 6-foot-6 3-star small forward JoJo Toppin. Toppin is long, athletic and runs the floor well. Brandon Boston is probably one of the top sophomores in the state, and 6-foot-9 center Isa Muhammad has been playing his best basketball down the stretch of the season, including a 15-point, 15 rebounds performance against McEachern.
Meanwhile at Newton, Ashton Hagans’ star is only rising and getting brighter. He wowed a capacity Newton crowd which included several blueblood college coaching staffs, with a 31-point performance against Wheeler in a game billed as a matchup between the two top players in the state and two of the best in the country. So far this season, no one has shown the ability to stop him or even slow him. Armani Harris and Dre Butler have become quite the formidable 1-2 punch down low. Both had excellent games against EJ Montgomery and that long Wheeler front court. And when Tyrease Brown and Tre Clark are knocking down threes and getting to the basket, it just rounds Newton out as a team.
The Outlook: Lately, Newton has faced teams either with very good guard play and average-at-best post players, or the opposite. Case-in-point, in the Sweet 16 matchup, Mountain View almost shot themselves past the Rams from 3-point range, and the Bears had guards who were rangy and athletic enough to make things tougher than normal for Hagans, but Newton was able to pound the ball inside against the shorter Mountain View team down the stretch. Against Wheeler, it was the exact opposite. Huge front court, led by the state’s best power forward, but guards who were largely unable to slow Hagans — or even Brown, for that matter — down. In Norcross, however, Newton might meet a team that blends both stellar guard play and solid post presence better than anyone its seen this season. Both teams have benefited from tough schedules. Newton has defeated five teams that are currently in the Final Four, including Grayson, while Norcross has had three hard-fought wins over region foe Meadwocreek, which is also in the Final Four on the other side. But the Blue Devils haven’t had to face a single player with Hagans’ varied skill set this season.