Rick Rasmussen wanted to leave as little room as possible for a South Gwinnett fourth quarter comeback Friday night.
So just seconds before the third quarter ended, and despite top-ranked Newton being up by eight points, he did something that, perhaps caused a few to scratch their heads.
He called a timeout. Almost like when there’s just a few ticks on the clock remaining in regulation, and you want to try to win the game without overtime.
“We had that time out, and people maybe wondered why we took it,” Rasmussen said. “But we hit a three-pointer out of the time out for Isaiah (Miller), and that was a big deal for us to go up by 11 instead of just eight.”
The trey represented just three points in Miller’s game-high 37 point explosion, but that one shot itself may have capsulized what has made the 6-foot-1 senior’s game transformation so special this year.
“Isaiah had his best shooting game of the year (Friday) night,” Rasmussen said. “But, you know, he’s been really working hard. He’s very consistent in his attitude. He’s very consistent in his approach. He’s not worried about anything. He’s just doing his job and taking what comes and helping this team.”
Oh, by the way, the third quarter triple with just 2.4 seconds remaining, helped push Newton’s lead back to double figures en route to an 82-63 Friday night region win against what proved to be an extremely pesky Comets squad.
“South Gwinnett has been competitive in all its region games,” Rasmussen said.
In other words, it was no surprise that South Gwinnett was able to (10-6, 1-5 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) was able to keep things fairly close throughout.
In fact, it wasn’t until Miller’s third quarter buzzer beater — followed by a scoring blitz where he tallied eight of Newton’s first 10 points in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter — that Newton was finally able to put an insurmountable distance between themselves and South Gwinnett.
On his way to 37 points, Miller went 10-for-10 from the free throw line, in addition to his hot shooting from the field. It has been just one of the ways Miller has transformed his game during his time at Newton.
“Isaiah takes our shooting drills very seriously,” Rasmussen said. “He’s aggressive. Like I said, he’s just working very hard on his jump shot and it’s really paying off. He’s showing a very nice, soft touch, especially at the foul line.”
It was a night where Newton didn’t really need much offensive production from anyone else, because of Miller’s hot shooting. Aside from J.D. Note’s 16 points, no other Newton player found double figures, although players like Ashton Hagans, with his seven assists and four steals, and Josh Tukes with 11 rebounds, found other ways to contribute and shake off South Gwinnett.
“We were fighting ourselves a little bit, and maybe we were a little complacent,” Rasmussen said. “But we still competed when we had to. We woke up after a couple of timeouts. We did what we needed to do.”
And for those who may be slightly disappointed to not see a thorough beatdown administered by the state’s No. 1 team and the No. 12 squad in the nation, according to MaxPreps, Rasmussen is unbothered.
“There’s no reason for us to try and win by 40 every night,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything to keep you humble or hungry.”
Newton’s win, however, did push it to a perfect 20-0, as the Rams also sit atop Region 8-AAAAAAA with a perfect 6-0 mark with just five regular season games remaining, including a Saturday afternoon matchup with Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.
Rasmussen said the focus has now turned to helping keep his kids mentally sharp as the regular season winds down.
“I think for the most part they’re gamers,” he said. “And this team is more excited about the game than practice. Some teams are great at practice but can’t put it into the game. This team has 9 or 10 returners, veterans and guys who’ve kind of been there, done that. It’s a little easier for them to get bored with practice than in games.”
Newton will welcome the many reprieve that the tail end of the season will bring, especially after just finishing a stretch of six games in eight days. After Saturday’s matchup with Southwest Atlanta Christian, Newton faces Grayson on Tuesday, travels to Rockdale Friday and then finishes with home games against Shiloh and Archer on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3.
Grayson (13-6, 4-1) will likely provide the stiffest remaining challenge, as Newton inches closer to completing a perfect regular season record. But instead of focusing on that, Rasmussen is more concerned with keeping his squad connected to each other and their ultimate goal of a state championship.
“Like I said, it’s a veteran group,” he said. “Everybody’s got egos, highs and lows and inconsistencies. These are 16 and 17 year old kids. I’m not perfect either. So it’s all about being a family and trusting each other and trying to make sure we’re not at odds with each other and just taking it one day and one game at a time.”