The Newton Rams overcame a raucous crowd, and an emotionally charged, revenge-minded Eastside Eagles squad to dismantle the Eagles 74-51 in the first of a pair of regular season games between the in-county rivals.
Isaiah Miller and J.D. Notae powered the Rams to the win in Miller’s old stomping grounds with 21 points apiece. Notae added seven steals and Miller, four assists, while sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans chipped in with 11 points and six assists.
It was an infamous homecoming of sorts for Newton’s Isaiah Miller, who transferred from Eastside after the 2015-16 season, and the matchup was the subject of some Twitter wars between Eastside’s Keiodre Perry and Miller in the preceding days.
Some tempers did flare a little in the beginning, as both Miller and Perry got hit with double technical fouls at the 3:07 mark in the first quarter for some excessive jawing at each other.
Perry actually started the scoring for the game with a pretty scoop shot lay-up to give Eastside a 2-0 lead which would be the only time the Eagles would lead in the game. Newton went on an 11-0 run, punctuated by a Notae reverse lay up and a Hagans dunk before the technical fouls came.
That gave way to a brief momentum swing for the Eagles as Dez Dyer would drain a baseline jumper to draw Eastside within five, with Newton leading 15-10.
But that would be as close as the Eagles would get the rest of the way, as Miller and company calmed down and ramped up the defensive pressure, causing several turnovers which Newton’s Colby Rogers came off the bench to capitalize off of by scoring on a layup and draining a three-pointer in back-to-back, turnover induced possessions.
After another technical foul was called on Eastside’s Scott Avery, Notae hit a pair of free throws and a jumper, followed by a Miller dunk and a Notae lay up on back-to-back Newton steals to close out the quarter.
Miller seemed to be particularly locked in to this game, and it showed, especially in the middle of the second quarter.
On a series of three consecutive possessions, Miller scored, first on a shot that was goal-tended. Then he electrified the crowd by catching an alley-oop from Dante Johnson.
But perhaps his most impressive move came after a steal when Miller caught the ball in transition, crossed over Perry, spun off another defender in the lane and laid the ball in off the backboard.
The coup de gras for the 6-foot-1 senior came on a put-back slam off a Notae miss. The flurry helped stretch Newton’s lead to 44-19 at the 3:30 mark in the second quarter, on the way to a 51-20 halftime advantage.
Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said he was glad to see Miller manage the emotions of the game and perform the way he knew he could.
“The main thing I wanted Isaiah to do was to be himself, and be in character and just be a Ram,” Rasmussen said. “And, you know, just stay under control and keep his emotions in check. I think he mostly did a good job of that.”
As for Eastside, inexperience may have been more of the culprit for its rough start than anything else. Eagles coach Brent Wren said he saw it, particularly in his backcourt, but was happy with the way his bunch performed once they settled in defensively in the second half.
“When you look at it, (Newton) scored more points in the first quarter than in the entire second half,” Wren said. “If we eliminate that first quarter and the beginning of the second, it’s just going to be a closer game.”
Wren attributed the second half success with a shift in his defensive philosophy. The Eagles started in man, and then sagged back into a 1-3-1 zone, which Rasmussen admitted gave his guys a bit of a tough time.
“They went to the 1-3-1 and we didn’t shoot well,” Rasmussen said. “We’re so good in transition, but we’re struggling right now when the pace of the game changes. Typically we can run a great half court offense, you just haven’t seen it yet. When we play teams that can get back and play man, we’ll have to grind offensively and play a five-man motion offense.”
As for Wren, he regrets that he didn’t make the schematic switch sooner.
“It was a coach’s decision for me to put them in man initially,” Wren said. “When I talked to them in the locker room I told them, ‘I should’ve had you guys playing in a half court (defense).’ But it’s a matter where you live and learn and grow from it.”
That’s exactly what Wren hopes his star player, Perry, who finished with a team-high 20 points for the Eagles, and No. 2 scorer Dez Dyer, who chipped in with 13, do after this game also.
Wren said that since both are getting accustomed to expanded roles, the adjustment may have been a little much to handle against such a strong opponent — in many polls, Newton is ranked No. 2 in the state’s largest classification — especially early on when the emotions and jitters between the two teams were most evident.
“Keiodre is an emotional kid,” Wren said. “But in that game, I think he stayed emotional. He plays like that, and it’s a give and take sometimes. Sometimes as a coach you want a kid to be more cerebral, but you live with that emotion because that’s who he is.
“As for Dyer, he’s still getting adjusted to life as a first year varsity starter, so it took him some time to settle down. He kind of had that deer in headlights look for a while. You think you’re prepared for these big games, and then you get in the bright lights and it can feel a lot different. But toward the end you could see them realizing that they can play with and compete against these guys.”
Newton improved to 6-0 on the season, while Eastside dropped its first of the year and fall to 4-1.
Both squads open region play this coming week with Newton traveling to South Gwinnett (3-1) and Eastside making the trek to play at Druid Hills next Friday.
These two schools will renew their rivalry on January 7 at Newton.