No. Way. There was no way Newton would go down and beat defending Region 2-AAAAAA state champion Tift County as a No. 4 seed, versus the second-ranked team in the state. Not in Tift. Not a team that was 26-1, undefeated in their region and hadn’t lost a game since January 8.
The four Newton fans that went (five, if you count Newton’s Head Coach Rick Rasmussen’s wife) were likely ready to tell the Rams ‘good season’ after they put up a good fight. Instead, those few Newton fans were treated to the biggest upset of the opening round this year.
“We literally had Mr. Curtis, our athletic director; Josh Tukes’ parents; our bus driver; my wife doing the book, and no other fans. And then it was like 85 percent full,” said Rasmussen.
“Our mentality was that they’re not gonna give it to us, we’re going to have to come in here and take it. And it’s sort of an ‘us against the world’ type thing. From the beginning we played extremely well,” Rasmussen added.
Newton trailed early, down by one in the first, but tied the game at six and led from then until the end of the game. Jaquan Sims and J.D. Notae had their stroke going in the first quarter, as they both hit two threes. Newton dictated the tempo and it was 24-18 Rams at the half. The Rams led by as much as 10 points in the second half, but let Tift back into the game in the final minutes.
With a two-point lead, Newton turned the ball over and the Rams fouled sophomore stud Preston Horne. Horned made just one of his two attempts and Newton got the ball back. D.J. Hill went to the line and sank both free throws to give the Rams a 52-49 lead. Tift got a shot off but it hit off the back rim and that was all she wrote.
“We did a great job on [Horne], he’s a nationally ranked sophomore inside. We basically doubled him low and they’ve got one really, really good guard whose brother was a freshman at Georgia Tech last year – one of the state players of the year – Tadric Jackson. His little brother is Tyrie Jackson, we did a good job on him. J.D. was guarding him and then J.D. go hot and J.D. ended up with 22 and that kid had 20,” Rasmussen said.
Notae led Newton with 22, but no other Newton player had more than six points.
“We sort of shocked ‘em. I think we controlled tempo really well. D.J. was magnificent with controlling the tempo for us. We didn’t let ‘em get out and run. We had a few silly turnovers where they got out and one time, end of the first quarter maybe, they got a steal and [Jackson] missed a dunk which I thought was big,” Rasmussen added.
Rasmussen’s gameplan was to control the tempo offensively and to force players other than Horne and Jackson to beat them, and they couldn’t.
“I thought that was really the best execution of a defensive gameplan we’ve had all year,” Rasmussen said. “We really did a great job inside on 24 and then we slowed down No. 1 just enough. We controlled tempo beautifully. It was a big upset.”
“I was really proud of the way that we executed the gameplan extremely well,” Rasmussen said. “One of our thought processes was if we have the ball, they can’t score. So we really controlled tempo quite a bit, but at the same time, offensively we were really in such a rhythm that we really didn’t take long. There were times when we were killing clock and there were times when we scored and they were like, ‘Another one? Who’s this guy?’”
That guy was Notae, who recently earned a spot in the starting lineup after suffering a bit of a slump during the regular season.
“We knew that it would take someone having an outerbody experience. JD’s done that in practice a bunch. He went through a down spot where he struggled with his three, but then in practice the last couple weeks he’s had a few times where getting ready for the team we were playing we let him be the other team’s best player and he was filling it up. Because he was supposed to, that’s his role, right? And we couldn’t stop him, so all of a sudden that’s what happened. He’s earned a starting spot the last week or so and he just played with a ton of confidence. He was doing it from everywhere, it was really exciting,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen says that he felt like his team wasn’t a normal 4-seed and that the entire Region 2-AAAAAA played well. The overall expectations were for Newton to be the only team to lose, but it was Lovejoy, the team that defeated Newton in the Region 2-AAAAAA third-place game that was the only team from Newton’s region to get bounced after the first round.
After the win, Rasmussen said the team earned praise from the home crowd, as they congratulated Newton on the win. The opposing coach, Eric Holland, said Newton was the better team.
“We came out with a lot of confidence and intensity considering where we were. We knew we had to come out and hit ‘em hard and we really did,” Rasmussen said. “I was really proud of the confidence we played with when it was us against the world, really.”