COVINGTON, Ga. — Playing in front of a sold-out home crowd, the No. 3 Newton High School boys’ basketball team overcame an early deficit and powered its way to a 74-65 victory over No. 4 Westlake in the second round of the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs Thursday night.
The win earned the Rams a trip to the Elite Eight for the second time in three years and fifth time since ending the 2013-14 season with a first-round exit.
“We fought. We came out and we fought from the beginning, and we physically fought,” Newton head coach Charlemagne Gibbons said. “They’ve got a physical team, coach [Darron] Rogers does a great job, but we physically fought a bigger, stronger team than us. And I was proud of that for 32 minutes.”
As has been the case for the past month, Newton was led offensively by senior point guard Caleb Byrd. The Georgia Southern signee poured in a game-high 35 points while going 12-for-14 from the charity stripe to help the Rams ice the victory.
Byrd has been one of the club’s leaders all season, but he’s elevated his game to another level at the most crucial time of the year. He’s now averaging 29 points over his past five outings dating back to the Rams’ first game in the region tournament.
“He’s a special player because he really wants to compete at a high level, and he can really score the basketball,” Gibbons said. “I just told him over the last month that what he’s done, and what this team has done, is they’ve started embracing each other. I think them embracing each other as a new team has come along. You’ve seen the guys embrace his ability to score the basketball and play with energy.”
Joining Byrd in double figures for Newton were sophomore T.J. Clark, who scored 12 points, and junior Jordon Marshall, who finished with 11. Freshman Qua Brown followed close behind by contributing eight points. Westlake was led in scoring by sophomore phenom Dillon Hunter, although the highly-touted shooting guard was limited to a 13-point performance.
The Rams found themselves clinging to a 58-54 lead midway through the fourth quarter before momentum quickly shifted in their favor.
Senior Max Calloway ripped the ball away from Westlake and pushed it down the court, leading to a layup from Clark in transition. Less than a minute later, Byrd took the ball along the baseline and slammed home a ferocious dunk to send the raucous home crowd into a frenzy. The senior spark plug quickly followed this bucket up with a fast-break layup, stretching Newton’s advantage out to 64-56 at the 3:21 mark.
Westlake continued to knock down shots and stay within reach, but Newton handled its business at the free-throw line to keep pace and collect the nine-point win.
After upsetting top-seeded Cherokee in the opening round, the Lions came into Thursday night believing they could hang with any team in the state. That confidence exuded itself early as they jumped out to a 21-15 lead in the first quarter.
Newton slowly chipped away at its deficit, but it wasn’t until Byrd knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing inside the final minute of the half that the Rams reclaimed the lead. Byrd’s trey gave Newton a 34-32 advantage, and the club would go into the locker room leading 36-32.
HALF | Newton 36, Westlake 32— Mason Wittner (@mason_wittner) February 21, 2020
This trey from Caleb Byrd put the Rams in front inside the final minute. He has a team-high 17 points at the break. pic.twitter.com/VOrG1gncHF
Gibbons attributed his club’s slow start to their delayed adjustment to the change of pace from the opening round to the Sweet 16.
“A little bit of the speed caught us off guard a little bit, and then we didn’t use our speed,” he said. “I thought you saw in the second quarter we started to show our speed a little bit up and down the court.”
Westlake matched Newton's speed for much of the second half, keeping its deficit at a respectable 48-43 at the end of the third quarter and remaining close behind until late in the fourth.
The Rams will have another tall task ahead of them next week when they go back on the road to face top-seeded Milton on either Tuesday or Wednesday. The Eagles earned the No. 1 seed by winning the Region 5 championship and advanced to the Elite Eight with victories over No. 4 Central Gwinnett, 86-63, and No. 2 North Cobb, 72-57.
The game plan for Newton? Simple.
“Go try to win,” Gibbons said with a smirk.
“Whatever it takes,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if it’s man, zone — grab, claw, fight, whatever it takes to come out with the win and get this group into the Final Four.”