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STATE BASKETBALL: Dre Butler's 19 points not enough to get Newton over Final Four hump against Norcross
Plus Gabriel Stovall's 5 takes on the game
Dre Butler
Dre Butler slams home two of his team-high 19 points in Newton's 86-66 loss to Norcross in Saturday's Class AAAAAAA semifinal game. - photo by Anthony Banks

BUFORD, Ga. — The Newton Rams ran into a buzzsaw Norcross squad that proved to be too athletic and too hungry for the Rams to overcome. 

Norcross sophomore Brandon Boston had a game-high 23 points, but was supported by three other Blue Devils who scored in double figures, including Georgia signee JoJo Toppin’s 15 points and 4-star guard Kyle Sturdivent’s 21 as Norcross ousted Newton from state championship contention with an 86-66 win Saturday at the Buford City Arena. 

For Newton, it was senior Dre Butler who led the Rams with 19 points while playing in his last basketball game. Five-star point guard prospect, Ashton Hagans had 13 points, but found tougher-than-normal sledding against a long, athletic Norcross bunch. 

“Our guys fought hard and played tough, but we just got beat by a better team tonight in Norcross,” said Newton coach Rick Rasmussen. “Hats off to those guys for the way they played.” 

Ashton Hagans
Ashton Hagans signals a play during Newton's Final Four loss to Norcross Saturday in Buford. Hagans finished with 13 points. - photo by Anthony Banks

The Rams were outgunned for much of the game, thanks to having to face a roster packed with four Division I caliber players, but the Rams actually held an 18-14 lead at the end of the first quarter. 

Tre Clark opened the second quarter by knocking down a 3-pointer. After that, Sturdivent sparked 13-5 run to help close out an impressive second quarter where Norcross took a 37-26 lead into halftime. 

Newton would cut the lead back to six at a point in the third quarter. But every time Rasmussen’s bunch would try to make a run, Boston would drain a 3-pointer, or Toppin would electrify the crowd with a dunk or some other type of athletic play or Kevon Eskridge would knock down a long-range jumper to stave off the Rams’ efforts. 

Norcross took a 61-48 lead into the final quarter, and never looked back.

The Rams ended their season with a 27-4 record, but made it to its second final four in the last three years. 

Afterward, Rasmussen paid homage to his five seniors and encouraged his returning players to start getting ready for another season. 

“I just told (our seniors) how much they mean to our program and how they’ve helped us, and just wishing for them to go on and have good college success,” Rasmussen said. “And for our sophomores and juniors, we just told them to start getting prepared to work hard and get ready for next year.” 

Five Quick Takes on Saturday’s game…

1. Norcross may be the most athletic team Newton has seen. No doubt, Ashton Hagans is probably the top player in Georgia and the best point guard in the land, but on Saturday he met a Norcross bunch that combined all the best elements of Newton’s toughest opponents into one. Think along these lines: The height and length of Wheeler combined with the backcourt prowess of Mountain View. Norcross could defend the paint, could limit Hagans from penetrating and could close some of those passing windows while also shooting lights out. It’s hard to beat a team like that. 

2. Dre Butler is about as good a basketball player as he is a football player. In the waning moments of Saturday’s game with the outcome not in doubt, I couldn’t help but imagine what last year’s Newton squad, plus Butler, against this year’s Norcross squad would look like. I had no clue how much the Rams missed Butler last year until I saw Butler play this year. I fully understand why he chose football. His upside is bigger on the gridiron. Being 6-foot-5 on the basketball court is different than on the football field. Butler’s basketball skillset is that of a post player. He’d have a lot of ball handling work to do in order for his game to transfer in college. But his size and frame is perfect for him to be a dominant rush end or even linebacker in college. Nevertheless, his presence this season was crucial to Newton’s success. 

3. Norcross should be nationally ranked. We’ve heard so much about how unstoppably good McEachern was. The Indians got the nod in the national rankings category. But Norcross showed that its 20-point beat down of McEachern was no fluke. It’s likely that the Blue Devils will hit the national rankings now, but based on what I’ve seen through these last two games, they probably should’ve already been there.

4. Georgia basketball talent is growing and is a force to be reckoned with. I heard local high school hoops analyst Joel Hillsman say it best: Other places like Chicago, New York City, etc. have major hoops talent in pockets. But in Georgia, the spread of the talent reaches from north to south. Personally, I got to see young talents like ELCA’s Malachi Rhodes, Morgan County’s Tyrin Lawrence and Alec Woodard, of course seniors like EJ Montgomery. But on Saturday I got a glimpse of Norcross sophomore Brandon Boston, and he may have been the best player on the court against Newton. Silky smooth shooter, and super savvy with a high basketball I.Q., it’s going to be interesting to see his progress over these next two years. He could be one of the best sophomores in the state. 

5. One day, Coach Rasmussen is going to break through. Any coach who is good enough to coach 5-star point guards and take make multiple teams to region championships, Elite Eight and Final Four appearances has to be a competitor. And no matter what he may or may not say, I’m sure there’s something in Rasmussen’s competitive nature that makes him wonder when will he and his program get over that Final Four hump and play for the program’s first state championship since 1964. Since we aren’t fortune tellers in the sportswriting business, I can’t say I have the answer for that. But one thing I can say is if Rasmussen hangs around, I believe he’s due. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Newton crack that seal in the next few years.