COVINGTON, Ga. — It was almost business-like.
The third-ranked Newton Rams came into Saturday’s Region 8-AAAAAAA championship game against No. 10 Grayson trying to win its second of three games against the Rams from Gwinnett County, this time with the addition of Travis Anderson who missed the last meeting between the two teams due to injury.
Grayson, on the other hand, was aiming for an encore performance of the last time it paid a visit to Newton when it came away with a one-point win.
In the end, it was a stellar performance from Ashton Hagans who exploded for 34 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and one of the best defensive first-half performances coach Rick Rasmussen has seen this season, that helped Newton to a 79-63 victory over Grayson, giving Newton its third straight region crown.
“I think our defense earlier was the best we’ve seen it all year,” Rasmussen said. “Especially in the first half. In the first quarter we only gave up eight points. I told them offense wins games, but defense wins championships, and I thought our defense won it for us.”
Grayson started the scoring with a bucket, but the 2-0 lead was pretty much the only advantage the visiting Rams would enjoy for the night as Hagans and Dre Butler, with his 21 points and nine rebounds, overwhelmed Grayson, particularly in the second and third quarters.
Hagans scored nine of the Rams’ 16 second quarter points while Butler had eight of his team’s 20 third quarter points. Before you knew it, Newton had pushed the lead well into double digits midway through the third quarter before Grayson started whittling the lead away in the fourth.
Travis Anderson and Reco Hallmon who had 23 and 22 points apiece for Grayson, tried to shoot the visiting Rams back into it. Hallmon drained four treys in the third quarter to help slice the lead back to single digits, and then Anderson’s late three in the fourth actually cut Newton’s lead to 61-57 at the 2:25 mark of regulation.
“They’re a really, really, really good team, and good teams are going to make a run,” Rasmussen said. “They’re not going to quit. (Hallmon) got hot, and you’ve gotta give them credit. I told (Grayson) coach (Geoffrey) Pierce before the game that there’s not much difference between the one and two seed in the state tournament. It’s not easy at all. We’re two top 10 teams. Hats off to Grayson. They fought hard and are good. We were just a little better tonight.”
Perhaps it was the fact that Rasmussen knew Newton’s road to a state championship would mean forging through a juggernaut bracket once again that caued more subdued region championship celebration.
Newton, which opens by hosting Central Gwinnett Saturday in the Class AAAAAAA state tournament’s first round, will possibly could potentially face a second round matchup with No. 7 Mountain View — a team Newton fell to in overtime earlier in the season — with possible Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games with Wheeler or top 10 Etowah, depending on how things shake out.
Newton also has No. 1 McEachern and No. 2 Norcross on its side of the bracket. That’s probably why Rasmussen was glad to have faced the best possible team in the region final. He feels the competition bodes well for momentum building as the state tourney approaches.
“It’s hard to beat a team that third time,” Rasmussen said. “We wanted to play the best, so I’m glad they got into it. But for our guys, to win three championships in a row, I’m just so happy for our guys. It says a lot about our tradition and our program.”
Newton will now face Central Gwinnett (8-16, 4-8 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) Saturday, but will take the upcoming week to recalibrate and prepare for the state tournament grind.
“We’ve just gotta stay focused,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Humble and hungry. That’s what we’ve been preaching these last three weeks, and that’s what we’ll have to continue to be.”