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PREP BASKETBALL: Newton can't solve hot-shooting Grayson, Deivan Smith in region championship game loss
Armani Harris
Newton's Armani Harris floats in for the two-handed slam during an 18-point first half. Harris finished with 22 points in the Rams' region championship game loss to Grayson Saturday night. -photo by Anthony Banks

LOGANVILLE, Ga. — Newton boys basketball coach Rick Rasmussen’s summation of Saturday night’s Region 8-AAAAAAA championship game was an easy three-point assessment. 

The Rams fell short of winning their fourth straight region crown, losing 64-56, largely in part to Deivan Smith’s game-high 28 points, Jevan Tatum’s hot shooting behind the arc and Tre Clark’s early foul trouble. 

Clark was whistled for a couple of early fouls midway through the first quarter which caused him to have to join Rasmussen on the bench for much of the first half. And Rasmussen surmised that that may have been the toughest part of the night in trying to overcome a talented Grayson squad at home. 

“The guy fell over (Tre) and the referee blamed Tre for it, and that’s the way it goes,” Rasmussen said, referring to the foul that limited Clark’s first half action. “So it was just too much to overcome. To have (Grayson) playing really well, No. 2 and No. 5, and then not getting the breaks with the officiating. It was just too much to overcome.” 

Tatum’s 15 — nine of those points coming off of 3-pointers — helped give Grayson’s 4-star point guard prospect the offensive balance he needed to help stave off Newton in a game where neither team managed a double figure lead until Grayson went up 56-46 when Smith nailed a floater in the lane at the 3:50 mark of the fourth quarter. 

In the first half it was sort of the Smith and Armani Harris show, as Harris scored 18 of his team-leading 22 points in the first two quarters. But his being held to just four second half points had a lot to do with a combination of Grayson making a slight defensive adjustment and Clark continuing to ride the pine early in the third. 

“They just brought an extra defender down on Armani, and with Tre out of the game, that’s part of it as well,” Rasmussen said. “It’s easier to guard Armani if you don’t have to guard Tre.” 

Harris, indeed, played like a man in the first half — particularly in the first quarter when, after Doug Moore and Tyrease Brown scored Newton’s first five points, Harris ripped off the team’s final 12 points in the game’s opening quarter, which turned out to be a hot-shooting, see-saw battle that ended with Grayson holding a 19-17 advantage. 

Harris regularly abused Grayson’s Ian Scheffelin who got the draw on the 6-foot-7 Newton power forward early on. But Kenyon Jackson, a 6-foot-6 Texas A&M wide receiver signee, had a little more athleticism to lend to the task of defending Harris in the second quarter. And, of course, that’s when Clark found himself spending his most extended time on the bench. 

The result: Only two Newton field goals in the entire second quarter, one by Moore, who finished with a solid nine points, and the other by Harris. Meanwhile, it was Smith and Carlos Dixon who carried the scoring load for Grayson as it took a 28-25 lead into halftime. 

With Clark in the game, both team’s offenses perked up, resembling more of what was seen in the first quarter. Clark finished with 13 points, doing most of his damage in that third period. But by then, the game’s pace had decidedly fallen into Grayson’s favor. 

Afterward, Rasmussen seemed ready to move on and focus on the fact that his Rams will host Lambert in a first round Class AAAAAAA state tournament matchup Saturday evening. Newton bested Lambert 88-63 back on December 1 — a game where Harris erupted for 39 points while getting the best of the head-to-head matchup with Lambert big man, Colin Granger.

“We can’t take Lambert lightly even though we beat them the first time,” Rasmussen said. “They’re gonna remember that and be really motivated. The concern is our guys not looking past that and not getting the big head. They’ve got really good players, and they’ll be really well coached, so we’re gonna find out what we’re made of, and if we’re going to be mature this week.” 

Rasmussen said that with seven full days between games, he’s going to be looking for his team to have a short memory about this Saturday in preparation for next Saturday. 

“It’ll be easy to be complacent and mess around since we don’t play again until Saturday,” he said. “I hope they don’t do that. My challenge for them will be to have a great week of practice and get ready for the state tournament.” 

With the loss, Newton fell to 21-7 on the season while Grayson swept all three matchups against Rasmussen’s squad. Meanwhile, Lambert (21-6) defeated Forsyth Central 75-70 in Friday’s Region 5-AAAAAAA tournament consolation game.