This was one of the best atmospheres on the road! Morgan and Newton folks are like family. Saw some folks I've not seen in many years. Great game!!— Ms. Hull (@MsHullGoRams) January 21, 2018
MADISON, Ga. — Call it a classic matchup. Long overdue. The unsung hero game. Whatever you want to call it, let’s just make sure it’s not the last time we can call it.
Morgan County and Newton needs to happen every year.
Perhaps I’m a prisoner of the moment, seeing as how I’m pontificating over a game that isn’t even a full 24 hours old yet. But based on how much both of these programs wanted to get together, and the quality of action we saw on the court for both girls and boys games, I doubt seriously I’ll have any detractors in this assessment.
It was a packed house, a state tournament-like environment, a game featuring several of the top players Georgia high school hoops has to offer and two coaches who are in the prime of their careers. And we learned a lot about this matchup, beyond what the final score — a 65-61 Newton triumph — tells us.
Here’s five things I gleaned from Saturday night’s game:
1. Morgan County is as good as advertised. I know coach Jamond Sims. I remember what he did at Luella, and what he wanted to do there, and to see what he’s built at Morgan County is pretty awesome. And last night was the first time I had the chance to personally lay eyes on the Class AAA juggernaut. The way the Bulldogs hung with a Class AAAAAAA big boy like Newton was not only commendable, but definitely not a fluke. Throw the classification stuff out. Alec Woodard and Tyrin Lawrence can play and contribute for any team in the state. Prior to this game, I saw, for the second straight week, Class AAA No. 2 Jenkins play. And they look solid. But to me, the gap between the two schools is immense. Sims said he wants his team to go 11-0 the rest of the way, meaning he expects another state title to come to Madison. At this point, I don’t see any team capable of standing in their way.
2. The value of Dre Butler to this team can’t be overstated. As good as Morgan County was Saturday, I think it would be a 10-point win for Newton if the 6-foot-5 senior forward played. Butler was away at Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC) on an official visit for football. And his presence down low was missed, particularly when Morgan County sank back into a zone defensively, slowing the game down and taking away some of Newton’s transition game. In the moments where Newton’s offense struggled most Saturday, it was in half-court sets. Butler, with his double-double average and uncanny ability to make plays around the basket, would’ve potentially changed the way the Rams attacked Morgan County offensively. He also would’ve bolstered Newton’s rebounding. As valuable as Hagans is to Newton as a floor general, Butler may be just as valuable as a post presence.
3. This matchup was a long time coming for both programs. Both Newton coach Rick Rasmussen and Morgan County’s Sims acknowledged that they’ve been trying to make this game happen for a while. It was actually originally scheduled for Friday, but last week’s snow storm put the kibosh on that. But it was a game neither side wanted to cancel. But not only was it a long time coming, it’s a game that I believe needs to happen more regularly. These two programs have been good in their respective classifications for a long time, and with Madison about a 25-30 minute drive from Covington, they’re too close to not play each other every year or at least once every other year. Even the girls game was jumping and full of intensity. The rivalry between these two schools seems natural. Apparently I’m not alone in this assessment, either.
“Coach Sims and I have a ton of respect for each other,” Rasmussen said. “It goes back to when we battled each other when he was at Luella and we were in the same region. We’ve been trying to get this to happen, and it was good. We’re looking forward to hosting them next year.”
Said Sims: “I’m just glad both communities got a chance to see this game, because it’s something that’s been in the works. We wished we could’ve got it on the schedule before, but we finally got it, and both communities got their money’s worth. We’re already talking about making it a game next year after the Thanksgiving break.”
I don’t think anyone will object to that.
4. There’s nothing like a high-energy high school basketball environment. I’ve seen high school basketball games in McCamish Pavillion, Philips Arena, the Macon Centreplex and all of these other large basketball arenas with all the latest bells and whistles (well, maybe not the Centreplex with bells and whistles), but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better than a jam-packed high school basketball gym with a home crowd that knows how to exercise its home court advantage. From the energetic, and unapologetically homer announcer to an intelligent crowd that knows when to make noise and a student section that knows how to heckle, give me that over the newfangled digs any time. My sports journalist brother, Kyle Sandy recently tweeted how he’d like to see one statewide state championship, as opposed to all the classification separation. I’ll take it a step further: Let’s do that, and play the games in home gyms. It’s where high level high school hoops belongs.
5. Newton is ready for a deep tournament run. Raise your hand if in the offseason you had some questions about what this year’s Newton squad could be, especially when it seemed that Ashton Hagans would leave for Oak Hill Academy after his sophomore season. All of the major players from last year’s nationally ranked squad were gone. Then even when Hagans returned, promising junior Colby Rogers departed for New Jersey, and virtually everyone on the floor would be new. But Saturday's game was the kind of matchup that helped make a believer out of anyone who doubts the Rams' toughness, Rasmussen's coaching acumen or the Rams' readiness for another deep state tournament . Oh, by the way: Saturday's win was number 276 for Rasmussen. He's 24 away from the 300-win milestone, which is certainly rarified air for high school basketball coaches in this era. Even more special, the fact that he's done it all at one school. 13 years and counting -- almost unheard of anymore.