NORCROSS, Ga. — Sometimes all the practice and preparation in the world can’t properly get you ready for the real-time experience.
That seemed to be the narrative put forth as Newton seniors, Tyrease Brown, Tre Clark and Armani Harris — along with head coach Rick Rasmussen — discussed Thursday night’s 69-57 Sweet 16 loss to No. 3 Meadowcreek in Class AAAAAAA state tournament action.
The Mustangs played like the defending state champions they are as their defensive intensity, physicality and scrappiness caused Newton fits all night long.
Tyrease Brown scored a team-high 20 points — 15 of them in a third quarter where he got hot and almost singlehandedly shot Newton back into the game, but the Rams had no answer for Meadowcreek’s Damian Dunn who led all scorers with 24 points, while also playing spectacular defense while being matched up against Clark for most of the night.
Clark had 14 points and Harris finished with 16, but they were probably the hardest-fought double figures scoring nights the senior trio had all season.
“That’s the most physical team we’ve played all year, and that kind of hit us in the mouth a lot,” Brown said.
Harris echoed his teammate’s sentiments.
“You know, we knew they were physical, but like Tyrease said, that’s probably the most physical team we’ve ever played against,” Harris said. “They played harder, they wanted it more. We didn’t play like we did, just being real. They just wanted it more than us. At the same time, we fought to the end, but it wasn’t enough.”
Coming into the game, all eyes were on Meadowcreek senior and all-Region 7-AAAAAAA player of the year, Jamir Chaplin. And while Chaplin had a pair of monster dunks — one in the second quarter that seemed to help get Meadowcreek’s offense going, and one 22 seconds into the third quarter that ignited a run that gave the Mustangs their first double-digit lead of the night — it was Dunn and senior Jalen Benjamin who did the most damage.
All told, Benjamin complemented Dunn with 22 points, and Chaplin finished with just eight.
“(Dunn) played well tonight,” Rasmussen said. “He’s probably their third best player, but he was their best player on the court tonight. You spend so much time keying Chaplin their region player of the year, but he was the difference maker.”
But perhaps even more than an unexpected scoring outburst from Dunn, it was Meadowcreek’s suffocating defense that made the difference. The Mustangs regularly snuck an extra man down on Harris to double team him, while the rangy Chaplin did a good job against him in spurts when he had to guard him one-on-one.
“They had a really good game plan with Armani,” Rasmussen said. “And even though we suggested what he needed to do, he struggled with that. They doubled in, we told him to be aware of not charging, pivoting and not dribbling into the double team. But they did a really good job on him.”
Brown said Meadowcreek threw some things at Newton defensively that they’d not really been exposed to this season.
“Kind of like trapping the ball screens,” he said. “We didn’t see a lot of that this year. And, again, just being physical.”
Rasmussen said he’d been tipped off, coming into Thursday’s game, on the kind of defensive energy Meadowcreek would bring. And although he and his coaching staff did as much as possible to get Newton ready for it, it still wasn’t enough.
“I was told by several coaches that (Meadowcreek) was the best defensive team in the half court in the state,” he said. “And they played like it. Everything they talked about, we knew what they could do. We were well aware of it. I just don’t think we were patient enough. We told the kids, but I don’t think they realized what it was.”
Moments after winning the opening tip, Newton would find out quickly.
In a herky-jerky first quarter that featured several stoppages of play for malfunctioning lights in the gym and a couple of players with blood on their jerseys, Meadowcreek took a 6-3 lead in an uncharacteristically low-scoring quarter.
Chaplin and Dunn teamed up for 12 of Meadowcreek’s 14 second quarter points, as the Mustangs took a 20-11 halftime advantage. Meanwhile, Newton could only muster three field goals in the first half.
“We needed to be more patient,” Rasmussen said. “We talked about it before the game how we needed to run multiple plays in one possession to get the very best shot we could. I thought we got sped up a bit because of their physicality. I thought Tre was a little bit impatient. You’ve gotta give (Meadowcreek) a lot of credit.”
In the third quarter, Brown caught fire. He got fouled on a 3-pointer and sank all three free throws to chop Meadowcreek’s lead to six at the 7:49 mark. Benjamin answered back with a 3-pointer of his own to put the Mustangs back up by nine. Then Chaplin’s dunk on a fast break made it 25-14 Meadowcreek about one minute later.
Brown knocked down another trey at the 6:28 mark, then got three the hard way one more time when he got fouled behind the arc again. His second 3-ball of the third quarter actually got Newton back to within five points at 28-23, but from there, Meadowcreek went on a 14-8 run to close out the quarter with the Mustangs on top 42-31.
“It was nice to see Tyrease get going,” Rasmussen said. “We talked about it going into the second half. Try to find him in transition before they could set up defensively.”
Brown described his third quarter outbreak in less strategic terms.
“I just had to step up for my team,” Brown said. “I didn’t wanna go home. I didn’t want this to be the last game.”
Newton never got closer the nine points the rest of the way, as Meadowcreek helped its cause by knocking down 23 of 25 free throws, 12 of 14 in the fourth quarter stretch alone. But in the end, the Rams’ senior trio and Rasmussen realized they had nothing to feel ashamed of.
“I’m proud of my team,” Brown said. “We’re gonna be good. It’s all good. Best four years of my life. Coach Ras, he’s gonna prepare us for college. Well, he did prepare us, so now I’m just ready to go to the next level.”
Clark and Harris had nothing but praise for Rasmussen and staff, and how they’ve been impacted by their time in blue and white.
“It’s been good,” Clark said. “This coaching staff helped me learn a lot this year. It helped me grow as a person and a player, and my teammates, they also pushed and helped me and made me go harder every day.”
Said Harris: “Since my freshman year, Coach Ras took me under his wing. It’s really been a learning experience all four years, especially leading to a breakout senior season for me, Tyrease and Tre. That’s one thing we’re gonna miss. The coaches, teammates, family, everybody who supported us to this day. I’m going to miss it. I love it all.”
Rasmussen said he’ll remember this particular senior class, not for the season ending setback, but for what has been accomplished over the last four years.
The 2019 senior class, which also includes Mike Mathison, LeAndrew Sims, Jamal Pollard and Dejoun Taylor, has compiled a 104-18 record with three region championships, been in four of Newton's five straight Sweet 16 appearances and two Elite Eight and Final four appearances.
“This class was outstanding,” he said. “Well over 100 wins, and you’ll find very few who have been to (four) straight Sweet 16s. Whether they’re in the rotation or not, they are really great young men, and they’re gonna do great things in college and beyond. I told them there are a lot of things that last a lot longer than basketball, and in life after basketball for all our kids, they’re going to be great winners.”