COVINGTON, Ga. — Despite head coach Rick Rasmussen being absent from the Saturday night matchup, the No.9 Newton Rams rolled past the Lambert Longhorns, 77-54 in the first round of the GHSA Class AAAAAAA state tournament.
It was iunior guard Shawn Smith leading the way for the Rams, dropping 25 points, with senior forward Armani Harris following closely behind with 23.
But if you ask Lambert head coach Scott Bracco to summarize the difference in the game, he’ll point you to Newton’s 6-foot-7 senior who erupted for 13 of his game total in the third quarter, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“I think we came out in the first half and did a great job with the game plan,” Bracco said. “We had them confused, and the difference maker of the game was Armani Harris. He just dominated us in the second half.”
Despite the game’s lopsided final score, the Longhorns kept themselves within striking distance for the first half.
Both teams got off to a hot start, but no one was hotter than Smith, who put up 11 of his 25 points in the first quarter, thanks in part to three 3-pointers.
“The coaches said they were probably going to focus on our big three [Tre Clark, Armani Harris, and Tyrease Brown], so they told me to work on getting shots up since they weren’t focusing on me,” Smith said after the game.
After an electric put-back dunk by Clark after one of Smith’s few misses on the night, the Rams took a 16-13 lead into the second quarter.
During the second quarter, the Rams showed a preview of their second half rout by going on a 14-7 run for the first few minutes of the period. But Newton went cold while the Longhorns caught on fire to end the half. As both teams went into the locker room for the break, the Rams held a slim 32-28 lead.
Newton came out looking like a brand-new squad in the third quarter, erupting for 25 points in a pivotal period that shifted the game’s momentum for good. When asked what happened in the third quarter, Bracco’s answer was succinct but sure.
“Armani Harris was the third quarter,” Bracco said. “He’s the most underrated player in the state.”
The Rams’ big man exploded for 13 points in the quarter, including back to back threes to start the second half.
After the game, Harris commented on his big night and second major scoring performance of the season against Lambert.
“It feels good, but at the same time [I’ve] got to leave that behind,” Harris said. “We’ve got another team to play next week, and we’re looking forward to that matchup right now. We’re just happy [this game] is over with.”
Assistant coach Terrance Demps, who stood in for head coach Rasmussen, seemed to echo his coaching counterpart’s sentiments regarding Harris’ play.
“We are where we are because of Armani Harris,” Demps said.
Harris had monster dunk in the third that seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, putting the Rams up 59-39 and sending the bench into a frenzy. After the huge quarter, Newton strolled into the fourth with a comfortable 59-41 lead.
From there, the Rams coasted, going on an 18-8 run to finish off the Longhorns.
The Newton stars had the chance to rest for the final minutes of the game and cheer on some of their underclass teammates who got some valuable playing time on a big stage.
Demps called it a program win.
“It was basically a team effort,” Demps said. “We have a program here and we stick to our script. The coaches do a good job of getting the players prepared, and our starters stepped up. It’s easy to coach a well-oiled team.”
And that team, Demps said, made it clear that it wanted to win Saturday night for its head coach.
“He helped get the team here, so he’s here with us,” Demps said. “He’s feeling a little bit better. He’s just got to get some rest. He’s tough as nails. He does all the little things that a great coach does. We are just thankful that he is okay and is going to be okay and is recovering. We just want to send a shout out to him and let him know we are thinking about him. We want to dedicate this win to him.”
Newton (22-7) will be back in action Thursday when it travels to play against defending state AAAAAAA champion and third-ranked Meadowcreek (23-5) in the Sweet 16.