The legend of Newton guard Stephen Croone is growing by the game. Unfortunately for the Rams, they have yet to capitalize on his newfound penchant for dramatics.
For the second time in a span of less than a week, Croone rallied Newton back and nailed a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime. But like the first time, the Rams were unable to complete the comeback and fell 48-46 to Langston Hughes in overtime.
Croone scored 20 of his game-high 27 points over the final three minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime but an offensive rebound and putback as time expired in the extra period lifted the Panthers to the win.
The loss was Newton’s third straight by two points and the Rams’ first three-game losing streak since 2009.
“It’s tough. Unbelievable really,” Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. “We just have to keep believing that our hard work and hustle is going to pay off. We showed a lot of heart.”
T.J. Sellman scored 26 to lead Langston Hughes. Shane Henry was the only other player in double figures. He finished with 10 for the Rams.
The Rams trailed 35-26 with 1:15 to go when Croone put on a show reminiscent of last week’s thriller against Alcovy. After scoring seven points over the first 30-plus minutes and struggling mightily for most of the game, Croone’s hit his first of four 3-pointers on the Rams final five possessions.
Croon’s first three made it a 35-29 game. Rashard Cabane knocked down a pair of free throws before Croone finished regulation with three straight from downtown including the game-tying shot at the buzzer. He scored all six of Newton’s points in overtime and scored 18 of the final 20 including the last 15 straight.
“Sometimes it takes guys some shots to get going,” Rasmussen said. “Maybe the adversity makes him (Croone) tougher but we have to get everybody cranked up and on the same page and we have to get other people in the flow and scoring.”
The Rams struggled offensively in the first half, scoring a season-low 13 points in the game’s first two quarters. Despite their struggles, they only trailed by seven at halftime.
Newton picked it up a bit in the third quarter thanks to Henry’s aggressiveness on the offensive glass. He had two straight putback dunks and a third bucket off an offensive rebound to score six quick points after Langston Hughes had built a 12-point lead.
Justin Thompson’s steal and layup plus free throw capped a 9-4 Newton run to close the quarter and the Rams trailed 28-26 heading into the fourth.
Henry’s layup early in the fourth was wiped away after an offensive foul and instead of being down two, the Rams’ deficit remained five and they lost their best rebounder to a foul out for the second time in the past three games. Henry’s absence would prove big at the end.
After Cabane’s free throws made it a 35-31 game with 46 seconds left, Sellman knocked down a pair of free throws to push Langston Hughes’ lead back to six. Croone responded with another three to make it a 37-34 game. Langston Hughes made one of two free throws before Croone hit another three to make it 38-37. Sellman knocked down a pair of free throws to push the Panthers’ lead to three before Croone dribbled the length of the floor and hit a fade away three from the right side as time expired to force overtime.
Newton led 44-42 in overtime thanks to a bucket and a pair of free throws from Croone before the Panthers tied it at 44 apiece. The Panthers took a 46-44 lead before Croone made a pair of free throws to knot it up again. Langston Hughes held for the final shot and missed on a drive in the lane but came up with an offensive rebound and layup at the buzzer.
“We’re in a low right now. We’re playing in spurts of greatness but we just have to be more consistent with it,” Rasmussen said. “We need to bounce back and we need to play for four quarters. We can’t play for a half or three quarters. This team has to dig down and bring it earlier. All these games are important but the second time you play a team is the most important.”
You have to go all the way back to the end of the 2008 season to find the last time Newton lost three in a row. The Rams lost four straight in late January after two starters had to leave the team for deaths in the family.
“We don’t quit and you know, we haven’t won back-to-back region championships because we’re quitters so we’re going to keep banging and I still think this team can do great things,” Rasmussen said. “It’s early. What matters is what you do in the end. It’s a long journey and we’re in it.”