Newton guard D.J. Hill put the rest of the region on notice Friday night against cross-county rival Salem, dazzling fans with highlight plays and blinding speed on his way to a career-high 19 points in a 72-45 blowout.
Hill amazed the Newton faithful with an ESPN Top-10-esque steal early in the first quarter, pickpocketing the Seminoles’ offense before dribbling between the legs of his defender on his way to a layup.
Hill scored 13 of his game-high 19 points in the first half, but almost singlehandedly outscored the Seminoles in the fourth quarter with six points, as Newton’s defense held Salem to just seven points in the period.
“We wanted to come out and play like it was our last game of the season,” Hill said. “This is a big rivalry game for us, and we wanted to get the win.”
Newton jumped out on the Seminoles early in the first quarter, forcing 13 turnovers as Salem looked shell-shocked despite playing tough early season contests against Redan and Meadowcreek.
Salem took an early lead on a Robert Baker 3-pointer from the left corner with 6:27 left in the first period, but the Rams reclaimed the lead for good on a Tarik Rogers 3-pointer on the Rams’ next trip down court. Rogers helped Newton to a 24-10 first-quarter advantage with nine points, connecting on a pair of 3-pointer in the period.
Hill scored back-to-back buckets after Rogers’ make, pushing Newton’s lead to 15-10 after his crowd-raising steal and score. Rogers closed the period on a 3-pointer, ending a 13-0 Newton run to close the quarter.
“The opening quarter was really big,” Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. “Tarik had a big quarter and I think it’s probably the best start to a game he’s had in his career.”
Salem battled back in the second quarter, closing the gap to 12 on a David Noble 3-pointer with 4:05 to go in the first half, but both teams traded baskets in the half, as Newton edged out the Seminoles 15-14 in the half to carry a 39-24 advantage into halftime.
It was much of the same for Salem’s offense in the third quarter, as the Seminoles were whistled for three offensive fouls in the period and committed three turnovers, despite getting eight points from forward Austin Samuel in the period. Samuel connected on three shots from the floor, including a thunderous dunk on the Seminoles’ final basket of the period.
Samuel’s dunk cut Newton’s advantage to 55-38 going into the fourth quarter, but the Rams’ defense tightened up over the final eight minutes, holding Salem to just seven points in the final period.
Salem head coach Noah Harrell said the Seminoles came out too edgy in the opening half to really make a statement.
“We were too amped up,” Harrell said. “We had double-digit turnovers in the first quarter, and we weren’t able to dictate the pace. It really hurt us. We just weren’t focused. We weren’t a focused team tonight. We didn’t come out doing the little things we needed to do tonight.”
Harrell did, however, see some positives from the loss, especially from his bench.
“I saw some guys that came off the bench and brought in some good intensity and good minutes,” he said. "Jarrett Cook came in and gave us some good minutes. Our shooting percentage was good tonight, but turnovers allowed them to outshoot us. That’s something we can control that we have to do better. from now on.”
Rogers finished with 15 points for the Rams, while Taylor Hawkins added 13, including eight in the third quarter, in the win.
Samuel finished the contest with 18 points and was the only Seminole to finish in double- igures in scoring.
With the win, Newton moves to 2-0 on the season, while Salem drops to 1-1.
“It’s a good start,” Hill said. “We have to keep on pushing it in practice to keep improving.”
Newton returns to action Nov. 29 against Paulding County, while the Seminoles host Flowery Branch in region play on Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m.