LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — When it comes to Newton’s last pair of games against Shiloh, Rick Rasmussen is two times a prophet.
The top-ranked Rams were able to hoist the Region 8-AAAAAAA trophy Saturday night after an inspired performance led to a 75-61 victory over the Shiloh Generals in the region championship game at Archer High.
And there were definitely many reasons for Newton (26-1, 9-1) to be inspired. For starters, Shiloh represented the only team able to put a blemish on the Rams’ otherwise perfect season. That happened back on Jan. 31 when the Generals upset a then-undefeated, but shorthanded Newton squad 68-57 at Newton.
Now for prophecy number one: Before the aforementioned game, Rasmussen spoke about how Shiloh, despite its record, could make a legitimate argument for being the most talented team, pound-for-pound, in the region. And with 6-foot-6 center Josh Tukes and 6-foot-1 sharpshooter Darvin Jones either out or limited for that game, Rasmussen seemed to forewarn that a losing outcome wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Fast forward to Friday night, after the Rams squeaked out a 70-63 region semifinal win over South Gwinnett, and Rasmussen offered up prophecy number two when he told his team in the postgame locker room that he was proud of how they gutted it out, that each game from here on would be a gut-out game and that if Newton could gut it out Saturday, they’d “climb to the top” of the region mountain.
And so it was. A 27-point game for Isaiah Miller — which was highlighted by four three pointers in five possessions during the third quarter — and Jones’ 20-point performance full of timely, clutch jump shots, made Rasmussen look like a fortune teller.
“(Darvin) shot the ball well the whole night,” Rasmussen said. “And that was contagious, and then several guys got hot at different times. It was big to be at full strength. We’re undefeated with Darvin, and having him definitely made a difference."
With Jones in the lineup, the first quarter of the region championship game was almost the exact opposite of Newton’s first quarter of the Shiloh loss. Jones nailed two three-pointers early in the first quarter, and then sank a pair of free throws to help Newton to a 15-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“It really meant a lot for me to be able to get back for this one,” Jones said. “And for it to be Shiloh and winning a region championship, it was really special.”
After Jones established himself, it was the Miller and Ashton Hagans show in the second quarter, as Miller knocked down perimeter shots, twisting lay-ups in the lane over 6-foot-9 Middle Tennessee commit, T.J. Massenburg, and even caught a couple of alley-oop dunks from Hagans, which helped stretch the lead to 30-19 at halftime.
Although Shiloh would try to sneak back in the game at various times, Newton always had an answer. It played with an energy that signified how badly the Rams wanted to exact some revenge on Shiloh.
“They wanted it,” Rasmussen said. “I wondered. But we talked about being selfless, not gambling on defense, making the extra pass, and just getting back to playing Newton basketball. Guys were out there smiling and knocking down shots and having fun. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Senior J.D. Notae agreed with his coach. The Jacksonville signee had 15 in the game, and acknowledged that he and his teammates wanted the Shiloh game so bad that it probably affected their ability to fully focus on South Gwinnett the night before.
“We were probably looking ahead a bit,” Notae said. “We just couldn’t wait for this one. We had to get this one back.”
Said Miller: “When I saw (Shiloh) win against Grayson, I said, ‘Oh yeah. It’s get-back time.’”
Hagans also said that having a healthy Jones back in the lineup was key. Jones was out with the flu during the last Shiloh game. He was also hampered a bit Friday against South Gwinnett game where, after scoring eight points in the first half, Rasmussen said he threw up at halftime and didn’t score again for the rest of the game.
"We knew having Darvin back in at full strength for this game, we figured he’d be on,” Hagans said. “And then Zay (Miller) got on and J.D. got on, and we just played much better. We came out stronger in this game than we did the last time we played them.”
And while Newton’s MaxPreps site showed Jones as a well-deserved player of the game, Rasmussen said that his own 6-foot-6 post player may have been the game’s unsung hero.
“I think Josh Tukes really did a great job with Massenburg,” Rasmussen said. “He was coming off of like 25 points and 20 rebounds — something ridiculous like that against Grayson, and Tukes was incredible on him defensively. The lob help was there, and Shiloh just had a hard time scoring in the half court.”
Massenburg scored a very quiet eight points Saturday. And the experience Newton gained by shutting down a quality big man should bode well if Newton gets past its first round state tournament opponent, Peachtree Ridge, on Friday. If that happens, waiting for the Rams would be the winner of the Westlake-Roswell game.
Westlake has five players on its roster who are 6-foot-5 or taller, including 6-foot-8 senior Chuma Okeke who’s averaging over 25 points and 15 rebounds per game. And several other solid, Division I caliber, college prospect post players may await the Rams, depending on how the brackets shake out.
But first thing’s first — Newton will face a decently athletic Peachtree Ridge squad and its combo of 6-foot-4 junior guard Devin Vassell and 6-foot-5 senior forward Kris Collins. Tip time is set for Friday Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. The Newton Lady Rams will host Duluth also on Friday at 6 p.m.
The Lions have struggled down the stretch of the season, losing four of its last five contests. But Rasmussen and company say they’re in the mood to take nobody for granted, now that it’s tournament time.
“We’re getting right back to work Monday to get ready for a good Peachtree Ridge team,” Rasmussen said. He also added that the school is hoping to schedule a Friday doubleheader that would also feature the Newton girls who are set to host Duluth in a first round game.
As for Jones, whenver the game is, he’s just ready to work on erasing the memory of last year’s 64-59 Final Four loss to eventual Class AAAAAA champion Westlake — something he said has been fueling him personally all season.
“Our confidence high right now,” Jones said. “We’ve pretty much got the same team from last year’s Final Four. Adding Isaiah helps. He’s a really big piece for us. So I’d say we’re ready for state. We’ve just gotta go out and play the games now.”