The third time wasn’t the charm for Newton (22-9, 5-5 Region 2-AAAAAA), a team that had been on a wild Cinderella run in the state playoffs with upsets over powerhouse Tift County and Dacula. The favorites to win it all in 6-AAAAAA, Wheeler (28-2) and No. 2 player in the nation Jaylen Brown, ended the Rams’ season with a 72-54 win.
The future is bright
Newton seniors: D.J. Hill, Donovan Grubb, Antonio Smith, Malik Wilson, Jay Sherman and Keondre McKibben went out not as state champions, but as one of the best teams in Newton history supported by one of the best runs in the school’s recent memory. Hill and co. led Newton to its first elite eight appearance since the 2010-2011 team.
“It just keeps the tradition going. We’ve got a great tradition of basketball at our school going back to the ‘64 State Championship. We’re going to hang another banner. When you go into our gym the banners on the right are the Final Fours and Elite Eights that I’ve been a part of, and it’s another up there and we’re really proud of that,” Rick Rasmussen, Rams’ head coach, said.
“I thought our kids just played with a ton of courage and heart. I couldn’t be prouder of them. We don’t have any regrets. We have our integrity. Our kids are from Covington. We didn’t go begging anybody to transfer to play for us and so I think it was a victory that we kept our integrity,” Rasmussen said “To do it with kids from Covington, who work hard and pay their dues and maybe don’t have as big names as some kids it makes it all that much more gratifying.”
The “Newton way” earned Newton yet another banner to hang in the rafters. Rasmussen is excited about the future of Newton basketball and fans should be too as their freshman class next season will be as good, if not better, as the Lady Rams’ freshmen stars this season.
“We’re just gonna keep it going. We’re really excited about the guys we have returning. Guys like J.D. and [Jaquan]. We’ve got Josh Tukes coming back. If he doesn’t get injured he’s gonna have a great year the whole year. I think he’ll be special,” Rasmussen said. “We’ve got a great group of freshman coming in from the undefeated Clements Middle School team. Ashton Hagans is a star in the making. He’s a 6’1”/6’2” point guard who can pass as good as anybody we’ve ever had and he’ll only be a ninth grader.”
Coming into the game against Wheeler, the one thing that must have been plaguing the minds of Newton fans was who would guard Brown, the No. 2 player in the nation.
“Defensively we needed somebody who was stronger and bigger. Marvin Boireau is good at guarding a smaller guard, but this is a 6’7” beast so you have to be quick enough to stay in front of him and tough enough and physical enough. So Malik [Wilson] was the guy that drew that assignment and he did a great job holding the kid to 20 points. In the previous game against Douglas County, who was a top 10 AAAAAA ranked team, Brown had 32 and 17 rebounds. He didn’t do that against us. We guarded him, we made him work.
Wilson played perfect basketball in the first quarter. He scored 11 of Newton’s 22 first quarter points and played great on-ball defense against Brown, who scored just five points in the second half.
“In the first quarter you would’ve thought Malik was the ranked player,” Rasmussen said. “It was exciting. The thing was he wore out, it took so much out of him physically and then he gave so much offensively, slashing and getting to the basket including from the opening tip. It was just too much for one guy to do. Boy, he played his heart out. I thought he and Donovan and D.J. and J.D. all played extremely well.”
No one Newton’s team played with as much intensity and confidence as Wilson. He broke to the basket to get easy points and when he made great plays on defense he flashed an ‘X’ with his arms to the Newton crowd yelling “lockdown.” Wilson has played this way all season and it’s been the Rams biggest spark as of late.
“He’s got a ton of heart and a ton of guts. As you said, just an extreme competitor. He brings a level of intensity that’s really helped us,” Rasmussen said. “To not have a back down mentality against somebody who’s more talented which we’ve seen here in the state playoffs. He’s very strong and he doesn’t back down and he’s fairly athletic.”
Just last year, Wilson wasn’t even on the team.
“He didn’t make the team last year as a junior. He wasn’t quite mature enough and ready to play and didn’t have an off-season commitment. I’m really proud of the way he made the team. He came out this summer, he was a part of the summer team. He stayed out of trouble all year. He’s really maturing,” Rasmussen said. “Throughout the course of the season, it takes a while to learn how to play Newton basketball. You have to have sacrifice and discipline. He plays 100 miles an hour in a 55 zone, and sometimes you have to learn to how to just go 10 miles an hour over. 65 in a 55, so you don’t get a ticket. I think that first quarter, he was playing about 75/80 and it was great, but then he kind of wore out.”
Wilson didn’t score again after the first, but he wore his heart on his sleeve and still played good defense until the very end.
The game was set for a late Thursday start (7 p.m.), but if you got there less than an hour early you were pressed to find a good seat. In part because of the support from Newton fans, as they showed up in droves to see the Rams play.
“It was great,” Rasmussen said of the overwhelming support for the Rams on Thursday. “I think we represented our community extremely well. We really appreciate the support of all our fans. Our school worked really hard to have a fan bus and they got a bunch of kids their that otherwise couldn’t have gone. I even volunteered to pay if they needed to have a certain number of kids to get the bus. I said, ‘Hey I’ll pay for some extra.’ We wanted the support especially with the weather we’ve had and it being a school night and all. We were just really thrilled to have the support there. We went over and thanked the crowd after the game because we appreciated them. It kept us going.”
There were plenty of Newton fans in attendance, including former Newton coach Ron Bradley, who sat a few rows behind the Rams’ bench. There were players from other schools from Newton and Rockdale in attendance, all showing support for Newton.
Rasmussen says that these students and fans are the best he’s seen in his 17 years at Newton. He says their support helped other Newton teams this year as well as his team. It was a great ride Newton.