COVINGTON, Ga. — Last time Newton and Westlake squared off in a high school boys’ basketball game, the two storied programs needed three overtimes to decide a victor.
On Feb. 23, 2017, the Rams eked out a postseason win over the then-defending state champion Lions in a marathon battle. Three days shy of the three-year anniversary of that epic contest, the programs are set to meet once again with a trip to the Class AAAAAAA Elite Eight on the line.
Thanks to a pair of first-round upsets, No. 3 Newton will welcome No. 4 Westlake to its gym Thursday night for the second round of the state playoffs. The Rams come in fresh off an 85-80 triumph over No. 2 Collins Hill, while the Lions are hoping to reproduce the magic they used to upset top-seeded Cherokee, 61-55.
The names on the rosters have changed since Newton and Westlake last met, but the Rams’ habit of winning hasn’t. That’s something first-year head coach Charlemagne Gibbons hopes will continue to bode in favor of club on Thursday.
“The brand of Newton basketball over the years has been really, really strong. We just look to continue that tradition,” Gibbons said. “And that’s the great thing about this game. Westlake has great tradition, Newton has great tradition. The last time this game was played a couple of years ago, it was probably one of the best high school games in the state in the past five or 10 years. Newton came out on top in that one, so hopefully that’s going to be the same this go-round.”
Postseason success is all about getting hot at the right time. At this point of the year, it no longer matters what a team did in December and January so long as it shows up and clicks when it counts. That’s exactly what happened last Friday night for a Westlake squad that finished the regular season at 9-19 overall.
On the road against the Cherokee Warriors, who came in at 23-4 and boasting their first region championship in program history, the Lions used defensive pressure to force an abundance of turnovers and keep the home team uncomfortable. Whether you chalk it up to playoff experience, a hard-nosed schematic approach or a mixture of the two, Westlake proved it has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with any team regardless of record or seeding.
Meanwhile, Newton continued to execute its game plan of scoring from any spot on the court while also getting timely defensive stops down the stretch to knock off Collins Hill last week. With the victory, they clinched a spot in the Sweet 16 for the sixth consecutive year.
With a first-year head coach and a blend of youth and experience on the roster, Gibbons isn’t expecting his entire club to be accustomed to playing on this stage. At least not the way Newton’s seasoned squads have been in the past. Consequently, he’ll be leaning on returning leaders Caleb Byrd and Shawn Smith to carry the torch and set an example for the younger guys who are still playing their first valuable minutes in the postseason.
“We’ll lean on our young guys for some energy and we’ll lean on our veteran guys for some leadership. It’s kind of been our formula all year long,” Gibbons said.
Newton will look to neutralize key parts of Westlake’s talented lineup.
Taking the ball up the court for the Lions will be sophomore point guard Dillon Hunter, who’s already received scholarship offers from Georgia, Auburn, Clemson and Florida State. They have other weapons in sophomore forward Jalal McKie and junior guard Donald Davis, both of whom produced double-digit scoring performances against Cherokee.
But while it’s advantageous to understand what the opponent brings to the table, Newton’s focus will remain on its own players and what it can control.
“Regardless of what they come out there with for 32 minutes, we’ve got to try to figure it out and come out on top,” Gibbons said. “Scouting reports are great, but it’s really about what you’re going to be able to do on the court once you get there and kind of see the game unfold throughout four quarters.”
Of course, having the opportunity to do so in the comfort of your own gym serves as an added bonus. The Rams are 8-2 on their home floor this season, most recently handing Eastside a 71-64 loss on Jan. 25.
“Any time you get a chance to play at home, you know, it’s been a pretty good advantage for us all year long,” Gibbons said. “We’ve got a great crowd, a great following. They bring great energy for us. The chips kind of fell for us and it worked out.”
Thursday night’s game is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m.