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PREP BASKETBALL: No. 3 Rams bounced from postseason by No. 1 Milton
Newton's 2019-20 campaign draws to close in Elite Eight with 68-62 defeat
Shawn Smith
Senior Shawn Smith (0) and the Newton Rams were eliminated from the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs Tuesday night with a hard-fought loss to top-seeded Milton in the Elite Eight. - photo by Anthony Banks

MILTON, Ga. — The Newton High School boys' basketball team's quest for a state title came to an end Tuesday night when the No. 3 Rams were defeated by top-seeded Milton, 68-62, on the road in the Class AAAAAAA state quarterfinals.

It was Newton’s second trip to the Elite Eight in three years, and its first under head coach Charlemagne Gibbons. Although the club failed to bring home any hardware, this season should ultimately be remembered as a resounding success.

In his first campaign at the helm, Gibbons led the Rams to 21 wins. Furthermore, Newton produced an unblemished record against local rivals Alcovy, Eastside and Rockdale County, while also being the only team to hand national powerhouse Grayson a loss this season.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and this team has exceeded expectations more than any team that I’ve ever had before,” Gibbons said. “And I’m super proud of those guys because they fought, man. Those guys fought. They fought [Tuesday,] they fought last week, they fought the week before.” 

TJ Clark
Newton's TJ Clark (23) drives past Milton's Evan Hurst (3) during the Class AAAAAAA state quarterfinals at Milton High School on Tuesday. - photo by Anthony Banks
On a night when Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young surprised fans by showing up and taking in the game, another rising star took over on the court. Milton sophomore point guard Bruce Thornton finished with a game-high 28 points, 23 of which came in the second half.

Undeterred by a slow start, Thornton knocked down a 3-pointer midway through the third quarter and followed up with a pair of layups. He went on to score 16 of the Eagles’ 21 points in the fourth quarter, salting the game away at the charity stripe by going 10-for-10 on free throws.

“Bruce Thornton was really tough [Tuesday] getting to that free-throw line when they had to,” Gibbons said. “He made a couple of shots, then I thought we had him winded. If it was a boxing match, we stunned him and I thought we had him. Then, all of a sudden, he kind of recouped and jabbed back and got himself back going. He’s a really tough player and he’s got a bright future.”

Playing in the final game of his prep career, senior Caleb Byrd continued to lead the Rams offensively as he’d done throughout the postseason. The Georgia Southern signee poured in 22 points and was joined in double figures by freshman Qua Brown, who scored 13, and fellow senior Shawn Smith, who chipped in 11.

Behind a strong effort from that Newton trio, the Rams put up a valiant fight in the opening half. Despite trailing the Eagles for the majority of the first two quarters, they continued to battle and went into the locker room encouraged by a 30-25 deficit.

Newton hit lulls in each of its first two state playoff games, but each time broke out of the funk by producing game-altering runs. The club appeared to be repeating that formula once again in the third quarter when Brown’s layup at the 2:46 mark capped an 8-0 run that put the Rams back in front at 40-39.

But, after trading blows over the next two minutes, Milton scored four points in the final 20 seconds of the period to take a 47-42 advantage — as well as virtually all momentum — into the fourth quarter.

Thornton caught fire for the Eagles in the fourth quarter, but the Rams still found themselves with several opportunities to shoot their way back into the game down the stretch. Unfortunately for them, the shots just didn’t fall at the right time.

Newton must now bid farewell to a group of eight seniors that played an instrumental role in leading the Rams to 70 wins over the past three seasons. Although their on-court production will surely be missed, the legacy they’ve established will remain for years to come.

“I tell these guys all the time, ‘Set the precedence for what this program is going to be moving forward.’ I thought that’s what these guys did this year,” Gibbons said of his senior class. “Anybody who puts a Newton jersey on for the rest of time knows how hard they’ve got to play to be a part of what we’re doing. If you ain’t going to play hard, this ain’t the program for you. I thought those guys demonstrated that all year long.”

Milton will travel to Buford City Arena on Saturday, Feb. 29, for the Final Four. The top-seeded Eagles will face the winner of Wednesday night’s state quarterfinal matchup between No. 1 seeds Wheeler and Berkmar. Saturday’s game will tip at 4 p.m.