There’s still so much to unpack in Newton’s 89-83 triple overtime win over defending state champion Westlake Thursday night that we’re going to give ourselves an extra day to talk about this one before moving on Tift County.
The top-ranked Rams (28-1) avenged their 2016 semifinals lost to Westlake in dramatic fashion, and major statement that it is poised to contend for its first state basketball championship since 1964.
As we continue to analyze one of the best high school basketball games of the year in the state, we’ll start by pointing out some key performers and performances.
Sophomore PG Ashton Hagans: Often the temptation for the untrained basketball eye that’s looking for a game’s top players is to find a stat sheet and see who scored the most points. In that case, you’d look at the fact that Hagans had just 12 and make light of the impact he had on Thursday night’s game. Please don’t do that. Hagans finished with 12 points, but he also notched a career-high 17 assists and finished with five steals and five rebounds. In short, Hagans did what good floor generals do — he made everything and everyone else around him better, including setting up J.D. Notae (24 points), Isaiah Miller (21 points) and Darvin Jones (20 points) time and time again to make big shots in clutch moments.
Not to be overshadowed is the fact that Hagans also did yeoman’s work in helping defend Westlake’s 6-foot-8 behemoth and Auburn commit Chuma Okeke. It could be stated that Okeke was the difference between a Newton loss and win last year in the Final Four. But Thursday night, despite a game-high 35 points, Hagans helped make sure that Okeke had to work for every single one of his buckets. This is nothing new for the sophomore, as he’s typically drawn the assignment of guarding the opponent’s best player all season long — see Newton’s two games against 6-foot-7 Spartanburg Day phenom Zion Williamson. Hagans once again staked his claim as one of the top young point guards in the nation.
Senior Center Josh Tukes: Speaking of big time performances on defense, Tukes was a man down low, especially early before getting into a little foul trouble. He wasn’t a stat sheet stuffer, but his 6-foot-6 presence was felt and needed, especially in helping to stymie Okeke’s production in the first quarter. Remember, although Okeke had 35, it took him 12 extra minutes to get it. Tukes had several blocked shots on Okeke early and grabbed several key rebounds. He, along with 6-foot-5 sophomore Armani Harris, are the only two “bigs” Newton has, and both — particularly Tukes — had big moments Thursday night that helped propel the Rams to a victory.
Senior SG Darvin Jones: All year when you think of Newton boys basketball, you think of that trio of Isaiah Miller, J.D. Notae and Ashton Pagans. But time and time again, Jones has proven himself to be just as important a piece to the Rams’ puzzles as the aforementioned “big three.” Jones kick-started Newton’s offense in the first quarter by scoring the team’s first eight points, forcing Westlake to extend itself defensively to honor his jump-shooting threat. When Jones is on, it loosens up the rest Newton’s offense and creates opportunities for Notae, Miller and Pagans to attack the paint in penetration or to find Jones open on drive-and-kick action.
Sophomore SG Colby Rogers: This 6-foot-3 emerging talent had perhaps the loudest 10 points you’ll ever see in a basketball game. His back-to-back treys midway through the third quarter gave Newton some much needed offensive juice to stave off a Westlake run, and his four free throws sank at the end of the game were necessary to kill any hopes of late game heroics that would force a fourth overtime. Next year when Notae, Miller, Jones and Tukes are gone, the onus will be on players like Rogers to step up and fill in those scoring and leadership gaps. His performance down the stretch of this season — and particularly Thursday night — have done nothing to make anyone think he’s not up for the challenge.