If only every night could be senior night.
The last time the Newton Rams basketball teams took the court, they left the gym buzzing after turning in two stellar performances against cross-county and region rival Rockdale.
The girls handed the Lady Bulldogs a 73-46 drubbing that featured double-figures scoring nights from three of the Lady Rams’ seniors. Jurnee Smith led with 18, followed by Lexii Chatman’s 16 and Takiya Cotton’s 10. It was a good bounce-back outing for Newton that came one night after surrendering a 15 point lead to South Gwinnett, losing to the Lady Comets in a battle of Region 8-AAAAAAA’s top two teams.
More on that later.
Meanwhile, when the boys team took the court, it left little doubt. Rockdale kept things competitive for a little more than a quarter before the Rams, led by Ashton Hagans, put on perhaps one of the best shows of the season for the home crowd, en route to an 86-58 shellacking where Hagans registered his 10th triple-double of the season.
The 6-foot-4 junior point guard finished with 23 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds and six steals, not to mention an array of jaw-dropping moves and maneuvers that left the capacity crowd at Newton High clamoring for more each time he touched the ball.
Perhaps the most impressive of Hagans’ exploits were a trio of dunks — the first came in transition as Hagans weaved from left to right, faking out a Rockdale defender and slicing through for a one-handed throw-down while drawing a foul.
On the second one, he went baseline and posterized a Rockdale defender with a two-handed flush, and then toward the end of the game, Hagans uprooted fans from their seats with a windmill slam on a fast break.
Newton coach, Rick Rasmussen couldn’t really explain the outbreak of highlight reel-style plays Friday night, but he knew the proper adjective to affix to them.
“He was spectacular, especially in transition and in the second quarter,” Rasmussen said. “He could probably answer better than I could why it seemed so wide open for him, but we got some rebounds and we were able to get out and run some and it just happened.”
Here’s what else happened for both Newton squads — They’re sitting alone atop the region standings and they control their own destiny, heading into the final two games of the regular season schedule.
For the girls, this is possible because, while Newton was taking care of business against Rockdale, the same South Gwinnett team it lost to the previous night fell 48-40 at home to an under .500 Archer squad. The loss dropped South Gwinnett to 18-3 overall but 6-2 in region play, which means if the Lady Rams (18-3, 7-1) take care of business at Archer and Shiloh this week, they’ll walk into the region tournament — held at Newton, by the way — with a bye and a No. 1 seed.
Same for the boys. Avoid two last-minute slip-ups on the road, and they’ll have a good chance to run the table in the region tournament and secure home court and a No. 1 seed in the state tourney.
That’s something Rasmussen says is crucial if Newton wants to make another deep state run.
“Two years ago we were in the Final Four,” he said. “Last year, of course, the Elite Eight. If you want to make a deep run, it’s a lot better to be a one-seed. But also, we want a third straight region championship. We’ve talked about that. We know what that means for state.
“Two rounds at home, and possibly a third depending on a coin toss. So that’s what we’re concentrating on now. Taking these next games one at a time.”
Thanks to the South Gwinnett loss, a slippage in the rankings was probably a foregone conclusion. Still, coach Tiffani Johnson’s team benefited from the Comets’ subsequent stumble coupled with it’s blowout win against Rockdale, and will check in at No. 6 in Class AAAAAAA this week. Westlake stays at No. 1, followed by Collins Hill, Norcross, Cherokee and North Forsyth.
On the boys’ side, Newton maintained its No. 3 ranking behind only Norcross and top-ranked McEachern. Three of Newton’s regular season opponents also populate the top 10. Two of them, No. 4 Pebblebrook and No. 10 Grayson, Newton has beaten head-to-head. The Rams lost 66-65 in overtime to No. 6 Mountain Ridge back on Dec. 16.
In what’s widely considered the most pivotal month of the regular season, the Newton Rams have experienced particularly good success over the last three seasons. The boys are 30-2 in the month of January dating back to the 2015-16 season. The Rams haven’t lost back-to-back games in January since the 2014-15 campaign when Newton lost to Lovejoy and Rockdale in consecutive contests.
It’s been similar for the girls. Johnson’s teams have gone 24-5 in the same stretch, last losing back-to-back games in January back in the 2015-16 season, when it dropped consecutive matchups with Rockdale and Tucker.
Future Ram Watch
Senior night belonged to Hagans as far as standout performances go. But toward the end, it was a sophomore wowing the crowd. Sophomore Ty Harper had 10 points in his Newton debut, making him one of three Rams to hit double figures. But four of those points came on a drop-step dunk over a Rockdale defender, and a behind-the-back layup high off the glass where he also drew a foul — albeit, during garbage time.
Harper transferred over from Norcross and was recently cleared by the GHSA. He’ll definitely be one to keep watch on in the future.
Both of Newton’s squads finish the region slate at Shiloh (Jan. 30) and at Archer (Feb. 2). The Region 8-AAAAAAA tournament begins at Newton on Wednesday Feb. 7 with both Rams’ squads likely getting a first-round bye.