Rick Rasmussen allowed himself to wax a bit prophetic Tuesday night just moments before his top-ranked Newton Rams were to take on the Shiloh Generals — a team Newton had defeated by nine back on Jan. 10.
Rasmussen noted potential matchup problems the Generals’ length and size could cause with players like 6-foot-9 senior T.J. Massenburg, 6-foot-6 forward Shamarie McLeod and 6-foot-5 guard Greg James.
Couple that with the absence of Newton sharpshooter Darvin Jones due to the flu during a time when the 6-foot-1 guard had been playing his best basketball, and Rasmussen predicted the possibility for a long, tough night for his undefeated Rams.
He was right.
Mcleod’s team-high 18 points — including a big time three-pointer from the corner early in the fourth quarter that put Shiloh in the lead for good — helped push Shiloh (13-10, 5-3 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) to a 68-57 upset of Newton on Newton’s home court.
“They’re a sleeping giant,” Rasmussen said after the game. “I think they’ll prove to be there, and I predict we’ll probably have a chance to see them possibly in the final of the region tournament, and I think they’ll have a chance to win some playoff games.”
Rasmussen said he was impressed with the grit and tenacity of Shiloh’s seniors, and the acknowledged that his nationally ranked squad was out played for most of the night.
“They’re seniors,” he said. “They’ve got four really good seniors who are returning starters, and they’re hungry. They’re a veteran group and they were motivated obviously. We really didn’t play well in any particular facet of the game.”
The Rams were uncharacteristically sloppy throughout the game, committing 18 turnovers — 11 by half time — and were also abnormally inconsistent from the line. Several times in the first half normally sure shooters were missing shots from point blank range, and Shiloh was able to capitalize with clutch perimeter shooting of its own — particularly from the free throw line in the last 2:25 of regulation where the Generals sank 11 of 13 foul shots.
It was a complete performance for a team that has had spurts and given most of its opponents fits throughout most of the season, but have been unable to close out games.
That wasn’t the case Tuesday night.
“We’ve been losing close games like this all year long,” said Shiloh head coach Kim Rivers. “I take my hat off to our young men. They actually executed a good game plan all night long. We stayed the course and played our best game all season. We’ve been working on just our poise and knocking down free throws, and that was key.”
The poise showed up, particularly early in the fourth quarter. After J.D. Notae buried a three for Newton to tie the game at 42 with 23 seconds left in the third quarter, Isaiah Miller then opened the quarter with a lay up that gave Newton its first lead since the first couple of possessions in the first quarter at 44-42.
By then the Newton home crowd was at full throat, and it seemed like the Rams would finally get rolling, until Shiloh’s Brandon Blair answered with a score that preceded McLeod’s trey at the 5:36 mark in the fourth. Massenburg would then hit a long jumper, followed by back-to-back three-pointers by James which stretched Shiloh’s lead back to nine.
That wasn’t the biggest lead the Generals had in the game, however. Shiloh erupted for 24 first quarter points as it led 24-9 going into the second before Newton tightened up on defense and whittled the Generals’ lead down to 32-23 at halftime.
Miller scored a game high 24 points, while Notae chipped in with 21. But the Newton offense struggled to find a rhythm all night.
Despite the loss, Rasmussen and his team seemed upbeat, and perhaps a little relieved that the going undefeated monkey was off their back.
“I’m hoping (that pressure) isn’t there anymore, because it’s gone,” Rasmussen said. “Now McEachern can have it. We’ll see how they do with it in the state tournament. I don’t really think it was pressure from our guys, as much as everybody else was gunning for us. I think we just didn’t play well, we missed Darvin and they played great. They played their best basketball, and they’re capable of it.”
And Rivers said he hopes this game marks the beginning of a stretch where his Shiloh squad starts showing its capabilities more regularly.
“I’m just happy for the young men because this is a big step for us moving toward the tournament,” Rivers said. “This is the happiest we’ve seen them all season, so hopefully we can build on this. But we can’t celebrate too long because we have a game against Grayson tomorrow.”
Newton’s next and last regular season game will tip off Friday at 7:30 p.m. at home for senior night against Archer.