SUWANEE, Ga. — The round of 16 gets sweeter every year.
The Newton High School boys’ basketball team is heading back to the Sweet 16 for the sixth consecutive season after the No. 3 Rams went on the road and upset No. 2 Collins Hill in the opening round of the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs Thursday night.
Newton trailed by 10 points with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter, but furiously battled back to steal the victory. First-year head coach Charlemagne Gibbons was ecstatic about the resilience his club showed in the comeback win.
“First off all, hat’s off to Collins Hill. They’re at home, it’s a playoff game for them, they’ve got seniors in that locker room who want to advance, who want to make a run, so hat’s off to them,” Gibbons said. “We’ve been playing against some monsters all year long. We’ve been playing against some dudes.
“So, being down 10, you bring the guys in the huddle and you talk to them in the timeout and say, ‘Man, we’ve been down to some of the best teams in the country and either won or have gotten right back there to win the game down the stretch. We’re going to do the same thing here.’”
With his team facing a 60-50 deficit late in the third quarter, senior guard Caleb Byrd took matters into his own hands. Byrd recorded two steals and six points in the final thirty seconds of the quarter to pull the Rams within 60-56 and give his team a much-needed jolt.
Byrd finished the night with a game-high 31 points. He’s been the team’s spark plug all season, but even more so over the past month. After pouring in 20 points in the Rams’ regular-season finale, he scored 26, 28 and 25 points, respectively, in the club’s region tournament games against Rockdale County, Grayson and Archer.
“You’ve seen the maturation of Caleb Byrd throughout the course of the season,” Gibbons said. “Early in the year, you’d get down, and he’s a real competitor. That might’ve been a couple of bad shots. [Thursday] he let it come to him. It came to him in those plays and he made those plays that he had to make. I just told him in the locker room, ‘That’s a sign of maturity.’”
The fourth quarter opened with senior Max Calloway knocking down a 3-point jumper to trim Collins Hill’s lead to one point. On the Eagles’ ensuing trip down the court, senior Shawn Smith ripped the ball away and dished it ahead to Byrd, who drew a foul and sank a pair of shots to put the Rams back in front at 61-60.
Collins Hill continued to create second-chance opportunities in the paint and knock down shots along the permiter, but Newton managed to keep up shot for shot. The back-and-forth affair was stymied when Calloway knocked down a monumental 3-pointer from the right corner to make it a 10-point game late.
Calloway was one of several Rams who showcased Newton’s depth by making key plays off the bench in the critical stage of the game.
“Man, we’ve got a deep basketball team, so you saw some guys in the second half that didn’t play a minute in the first half give us some great minutes down the stretch,” Gibbons said. “And so it’s a blessing and a curse. Sometimes you press the wrong button because you’ve got so many buttons to press. I think, through the 25-game stretch, we’ve kind of figured out as a coaching staff which buttons to press and at what time.”
Newton was pressing all the right buttons early Thursday night as it built up a 25-11 lead by the end of the first quarter. But Collins Hill continued its scrappy play and chipped away at its deficit, trotting into the locker room trailing 41-36.
The Eagles carried that momentum into the second half, opening the third quarter with a 19-5 run before the Rams clamped down and began piecing together a comeback run of their own.
Newton (20-9) will now prepare to face the winner of Friday night’s first-round battle between No. 1 Cherokee and No. 4 Westlake in the Sweet 16. The game will either be played on Wednesday, Feb. 19, or Thursday, Feb. 20. The date, time and location are expected to be announced over the weekend.