SNELLVILLE, Ga. — Coming off an opening-round win over No. 5 Rockdale County earlier in the week, the No. 4 Newton High School boys’ basketball team was faced with a tall task Friday night when it drew top-seeded Grayson High School in the Region 8-AAAAAAA tournament semifinals at Shiloh High School.
Grayson entered as the No. 3 team in the country according to MaxPreps’ Top 25 National Rankings thanks to a 24-1 record, but an upset was far from out of the question for Newton. After all, it was the Rams from Newton County who presented Grayson with its only blemish this season on their home court in early December.
For a little while Friday night, it looked as though the magic might still be alive as a remarkable display of sharpshooting and defense kept Newton in the game for three quarters. However, in the end the Rams clad in green and gold would walk off the court victorious with an 82-58 triumph.
“I told my guys after the game, ‘If you give me that fight in the playoffs, a lot of teams ain’t going to want to play us,’” first-year Newton head coach Charlemagne Gibbons said. “I thought you saw that [fight] and I thought you saw a lot of guys kind of coming together.”
Grayson came away with the win, but Newton senior guard Caleb Byrd stole the show for most of the night. Byrd led all scorers with a 28-point performance — eclipsing 2,000 points for his career in the process — to give his club a fighting chance at pulling off the monumental upset.
Byrd has continued to elevate his game in recent weeks, scoring 20 points in the regular-season finale against Archer and pouring in 26 in the opening round against Rockdale County.
“You’re a senior and you’re going down to your final fight, so this is your final fight. And he is a very competitive kid,” Gibbons said of Byrd. “I thought he kind of got fatigued down the stretch of the year, and I thought he’s had a chance to kind of revitalize himself out there. His energy level looks fresher, he looks more explosive out there.”
The Grayson Rams exploded out of the gate Friday night and took a 17-4 lead with 3:43 to go in the opening quarter. But Newton eventually settled in and its shots began to fall, allowing the Rams to garner a bit of momentum despite trailing 24-12 entering the second quarter.
Newton slowly chipped away in the second period, but back-to-back 3-pointers from seniors Max Calloway and Shawn Smith sent a jolt through the team by pulling the Rams within a point at 35-34. Grayson pushed back to protect its narrow advantage and trotted into the locker room clinging to a 40-34 lead.
Less than 10 seconds into the second half, Byrd made a statement for Newton by slamming home a ferocious dunk while drawing a foul. He sank his shot a the charity stripe, trimming Grayson’s advantage to three points.
The point differential remained below five for the first half of the quarter, but Grayson eventually came to life and built up a 63-49 advantage by the start of the fourth. The Rams proceeded to prove why they’re regarded as a top-five team in the nation, cruising along to a 24-point victory.
“They’re a big, strong, athletic team and they aren’t top-five in the country for no reason. You saw that in the second half,” Gibbons said of Grayson. “That’s what you’re worried about when you’ve got a young team and a smaller team, that they just grind you down in the second half. They did, and hat’s off to them.”
Newton will be back in action at Shiloh on Monday to take on No. 3 Archer in the region tournament consolation bracket. The Tigers swept the Rams in the regular season, winning 65-57 on Jan. 10 and 75-64 on Jan. 31.
Monday’s game is slated to begin at 4:30 p.m.
Byrd Notches 2,000 Points
Senior Caleb Byrd, a Georgia Southern commit, hit a monumental milestone Friday night when he reached 2,000 points for his prep basketball career.
Byrd has a made a positive impact for Newton on the court with his ability to score at will, but his influence is felt off the court as well.
“Coming in my first year along with his first year, just setting the precedence of the level that we want to work at as a program for our young players,” Gibbons said when asked about Byrd’s impact on his program. “We’ve got some really talented young kids, and just, if he can leave his work ethic with them, that’s what you do as a player. That’s part of your legacy. So, you can appreciate that as far as him coming in this year and being part of the program.”