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PREP BASKETBALL: Rams travel to top-seeded Milton in Elite Eight
TJ Clark (Full)
After defending their home court against Westlake last Thursday, sophomore T.J. Clark and the Newton Rams will hit the road again Tuesday night to take on Milton in the Class AAAAAAA Elite Eight.

COVINGTON, Ga. — For the second time in three years, the Newton High School boys’ basketball team is among the elite in its classification.

Since earning a No. 3 seed for the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs by knocking out Archer in the consolation round of their region tournament, the Rams have faced two tough tests in the big dance. They opened up on the road against No. 2 Collins Hill, overcoming a late surge from the Eagles to steal an 85-80 victory. They then welcomed No. 4 Westlake to their gym last week and pulled ahead late in the first half before locking things down in the second en route to a 74-65 win.

For its troubles, Newton (21-9, 5-5 Region 8-AAAAAAA) has now been rewarded with another road trip. This time, the third-seeded Rams will look to keep their season alive by pulling the upset of No. 1 Milton (25-4, 10-0 Region 7-AAAAAAA) in the Elite Eight.

“This time of the year, as long as you’re still playing, the seeds don’t matter,” Newton head coach Charlemagne Gibbons said. “Just having a chance to play at this time of the year is great for what our guys have been doing and great for what we’re trying to do for our program.”

Milton comes into the state quarterfinal matchup riding a nine-game winning streak.

The Eagles bullied their way past seven-win Central Gwinnett, 86-63, in the opening round of the state playoffs. They ran into a bit of turbulence last week, however, as a slow start offensively led to a tightly-contested battle against No. 2 North Cobb. In the end, their outstanding guard play carried them to a 72-57 victory to push them into the Elite Eight.

Newton and Milton are configured similarly, with both clubs relying heavily on a formidable backcourt due to a lack of size in the paint. That could bode well for the Rams, who’ve found ways to take advantage of teams that are similar in the height department throughout the year.

“It think it’ll be a good matchup for us,” Gibbons said. “Obviously, going 21-4 in the regular season is outstanding in 7A. Any time you can win 20-plus games during the regular season in this classification is a great year. They’re well-coached, and coach [Allen] Whitehart does a great job over there. I think it’ll be fun, to say the least.”

Senior point guard Caleb Byrd has elevated his game to another stratosphere for the Rams this postseason. He’s averaging 29 points per game over his past five outings, including a game-high 35 points in last week’s win over Westlake.

But Newton is a far cry from a one-man show. Byrd has coupled his innate scoring ability with strong leadership skills, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. 

His energy is contagious, contributing to the team’s transformation into a singular unit. On any given night, the Rams also receive significant contributions from the likes of senior Shawn Smith, junior Jordon Marshall, sophomore T.J. Clark and freshman Qua Brown, among others.

Newton has a plethora of weapons to choose from when attacking opposing defenses. As a result, they come into games loose and with a genuine understanding that any one of them could take over and lead the club to a triumph.

It’s been the Rams’ secret to success this season, and they hope that formula will continue to produce results against Milton.

“If you’ve seen us play all year long, you know we aren’t turning down shots,” Gibbons said with a smirk. “So I expect us to go in there, be loose and hopefully make some shots on the road.”

Tuesday night’s game will tip off at 7:30 p.m.