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PREP BASKETBALL: Third-ranked Newton boys overcome sluggish start with South Gwinnett
Ashton Hagans' ability to penetrate against an athletic and lengthy Norcross squad will be key for Newton's chances at winning its semifinals matchup. - photo by Anthony Banks

COVINGTON, Ga. — Not that he needed to, but Ashton Hagans proved he can take over a game in more ways than one. 

In a non-rhythmic, herky-jerky defensive grinder, the No. 3 Newton Rams used a second half surge powered by Hagans’ 19 points and double-digit assists to push past upset-minded South Gwinnett 69-55 Thursday night in a Region 8-AAAAAAA matchup. 

Despite the win — Newton’s 10th straight victory — Rams coach Rick Rasmussen wasn’t too pleased with a variety of variables in Thursday night’s game, starting first with the lackadaisical way things started for his ball club. 

Newton was down 13-3 in the first quarter before Dre Butler’s lay-in and Juwan Johnson’s buzzer-beater 3-pointer that allowed the Rams to chop South Gwinnett’s lead down to 13-8 at the end of the first. 

The Comets clearly made it a point to slow the game down to a half-court crawl, while ramping up the physicality against the Rams in an effort to take away its transition game. And it worked for most of the first half as South Gwinnett took a 29-25 lead into halftime. 

“We did it to ourselves,” Rasmussen said. “We didn’t have energy and we didn’t play well. It was not good at all.” 

Rasmussen acknowledged that the legs may be a little weary after playing for the third time since Saturday with another game against cross-county rival Rockdale schedule for Friday. But he offered that up as no excuse. 

“You’ve gotta find the energy,” he said.

That energy finally kicked in midway through the third quarter as Hagans, the junior UGA commit, started taking initiative to get Newton’s penetration game going. 

After he and Dre Butler knocked down some free throws to start the third quarter, Hagans drove the lane, drew several South Gwinnett defenders to him and then kicked the ball out to Tyrease Brown who buried a corner 3-pointer to give Newton its first lead at 31-29 at the 6:00 mark of the third quarter. 

The two teams traded baskets a while longer before South Gwinnett briefly regained a 39-36 lead when Max Harris knocked down a corner trey of his own. But the Rams would close out an 8-2 run to end the third quarter with Hagans driving coast-to-coast for a bucket with 1:18 left. Newton would take a 41-39 lead into the final eight minutes. 

From there, it was Hagans’ show. On Newton’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Hagans penetrate the lane and missed a layup, but the miss allowed Butler to throw down a put-back dunk. Then back-to-back Hagans buckets stretched Newton to a 43-39 lead — it’s largest of the game to that point. 

In the last five minutes of the game, Hagans either scored by getting to the basket, getting to the line or got others involved — namely Tre Clark and his three straight baskets under two minutes, all on assists from Hagans. 

The end of the game ended in sort of a chippy manner as double technical fouls — one for each team —  were handed out for a little skirmish with about 30 seconds remaining in the game. It was just one point of several where Rasmussen expressed displeasure over the officiating. 

“The officiating was not good at all,” Rasmussen said. “And it’s unfortunate. We started the game with a technical foul for dunking, and Dre (Butler) didn’t even touch the rim. I was made to not be able to stand (on the sideline), and then we couldn’t get our guy out at the end before they issued the double-tech. I said that it felt like we’re not at home. It felt like we’re on the road.”

It’s a qualm Rasmussen has had for the last few games.

“We told them again at halftime that we have to have a 5-on-8 mentality,” Rasmussen said. “And we also feel like we have to play better at home. We’re a team right now that definitely plays better on the road.” 

Newton’s last home game will be Friday night at 7:30 — Senior Night against Rockdale — before hitting the road to Shiloh and Archer next week. 

In addition to Hagans’ team-high, Butler had 14 and Clark finished with 10 points. Zawdie Jackson also had 19 to lead South Gwinnett while Harris chipped in with 13.