SNELLVILLE, Ga. — Strong performances from seniors Shawn Smith and Caleb Byrd propelled the No. 4 Newton High School boys' basketball team to a close victory over the No. 5 Rockdale County Bulldogs in the first round of Region 8-AAAAAAA tournament at Shiloh High School on Wednesday. With the victory, the Rams clinched a spot in the Class AAAAAAA state tournament.
The two region rivals met twice during the regular season, with the Rams coming out on top in both games, although winning by less than six points in each.
Byrd opened up the scoring for the Rams on Wednesday as Newton got out to an early lead to start the game. The Bulldogs would not back down, however, as they continued to take possessions away from Newton and capitalize on it with points in the paint.
“I don’t think we possessed the ball well [in the first half of the game],” Newton head coach Charlemagne Gibbons said. “We had a lot of balls knocked out of our hands in possessions, and I thought that was one of the main issues with our scoring.”
The two teams continued to match each other on the scoreboard for the remainder of the half, but the Bulldogs went into the break with a 22-21 lead over the Rams.
Coming out of halftime, Newton got into a rhythm, led by the two seniors, Smith and Byrd.
Even with the 17 points combined by the duo in the third quarter, what really allowed the Rams to create separation with Rockdale County on the scoreboard was the offensive rebounding that allowed the two seniors to get more opportunities.
“Early on Caleb was really focused and Shawn warmed himself up and got to really playing better during the middle stretch of the game,” Gibbons said. “Having those guys all year long they have kept us in games all year.”
Going into the final quarter up eight, the Rams offense was able to continue to string together a couple of good possessions down the stretch that kept the Bulldogs from getting close.
Two shooting fouls by Rockdale allowed Byrd to earn a crucial four points from the line late in the game, which was enough for the Rams to seal the 66-57 victory over the Bulldogs.
“It feels great [to get the win in round one], anytime you can punch a ticket to the state tournament [it is great],” Gibbons said. “It is what you pay the first 25 games of the regular season for so the feeling in the locker room is great.
Both senior turned in good performances offensively, with Byrd leading the team with 20 points and Smith right behind him with 14. Sophomore TJ Clark also played a big role in the Rams victory as he finished the game with 12 points, shooting 80 percent from the field.
After picking up his first postseason win after taking over the head coaching position to start the season, Gibbons expressed his excitement for the young group of players that this year’s Newton team has.
“I am super excited about the future of these young guys,” Gibbons said. “They have a lot to learn but they are willing learners. I think this run of getting into the state tournament will help them pick up their intensity.”
Following the big win over rival Rockdale County, Newton will look to two games from now, as they plan to avenge their 47-point loss earlier in the year as they face the one-seed Grayson Rams on Friday, Feb. 7.