MADISON, Ga. — This one was well worth the wait.
In a much anticipated matchup between Class AAA No. 1 Morgan County and Class AAAAAAA No. 5 Newton, it was the Rams who came away with a thrilling 65-61 road victory Saturday night in a game that could potentially be the spark of an area rivalry.
On a night where 5-star point guard and Georgia commit Ashton Hagans wasn’t the top scorer, 6-foot-5 senior forward, Dre Butler — perhaps, in his own way, every bit as valuable to the Rams’ success as Hagans — was away on an official football visit and both teams battled rust from a four-day weather-related layoff, the capacity crowd stuffed into Morgan County’s gym looking for a marquee high school hoops matchup wasn’t disappointed.
“I’d say both communities got their money’s worth from this one,” said Morgan County head coach Jamond Sims.
Senior guard Tyler Glover’s career-high 18-point performance included three 3-pointers and an assortment of courageous drives to the bucket where the diminutive guard played well above his 5-foot-7 stature.
Glover attributed his big play to a sense of next-man-up style duty.
“I just know I had to step up,” Glover said. “My brother Dre wasn’t here, so I had to step and give us a big game.”
Glover’s last two buckets of the game — a layup that broke a 56-56 tie at the 1:51 mark of the fourth quarter, and sinking the first of two free-throws to extend Newton’s lead to three points with 32.4 seconds left — were huge. But perhaps Glover’s biggest shot was one that he didn’t make.
Glover missed that second free-throw attempt that could’ve given Newton a 60-56 lead, but 6-foot-6 junior forward Armani Harris was johnny-on-the-spot with the tip-in off the miss that stretched Newton’s lead to 61-56, essentially icing the game.
“Big play,” Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. “Huge for Armani to be right there.”
“Armani played great and had to play the whole game,” Hagans said. “He was tired, but that big tip-in he had was just what we needed.”
Morgan County wouldn’t go away quietly, though. On the ensuing trip down the court, Bulldogs junior guard Alec Woodard would get fouled while shooting a three. Woodard sank all three foul shots to pull the Bulldogs to within two, 63-61, with six seconds left in regulation.
Then, Newton narrowly averted disaster as the inbounds pass was almost stolen. Several Morgan County players got their hands on the ball at half court, but couldn’t corral it before it bounced out of bounds, giving Newton possession with under three seconds remaining.
Tre Clark would then calmly step to the free-throw line and swish a pair that provided the final margin.
Afterward, Hagans saluted the way both squads went at each other after a long layoff.
“We knew they were gonna come with it,” Hagans said. “Everyone was probably a little off because we couldn’t practice because of the snow and weather, but we knew it was gonna be a great game. They fought hard. We fought hard. (Woodard) and (Tyrin Lawrence) was going off for them, and the whole team was putting up points on our side of the floor. It was a 3A school, and we’re a 7A school, but they played us like that, like a 7A school.”
Hagans and Newton started the game hot, with Hagans pulling up and sinking a three at the top of the key to get the scoring started for both teams in the first quarter. Then on Newton’s next trip down, Hagans dished to Tyrease Brown who buried a trey from the elbow, giving Newton a 6-2 lead.
But the hot shooting migrated over to Morgan County’s side also, as Woodard and Lawrence took turns knocking down shots from behind the arc. The junior duo nailed four 3-pointers in the first quarter, as Newton held a 20-16 advantage at the end of it.
The back-and-forth play continued in the second quarter, and Morgan County actually took its first lead when Woodard’s lay-in at the 1:00 mark gave the Bulldogs a 29-27 advantage. It was short-lived, though, as Newton’s Gabe Gates tied the game on a two-point bucket right before halftime.
The third quarter is really when Glover got hot, scoring eight of his 18 points and helping Newton to a 43-38 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. In the fourth, Newton was able to stave off the hot-shooting Woodard and Lawrence just enough to setup its late-game heroics. And Rasmussen praised his squad for its grit.
“I thought our defense won the game and made stops and plays when we had to,” Rasmussen said. “Tyler Glover played a great game. We knew what he could do. He’s a senior leader for us, and we’re proud of him. Like I said, they made a ton of shots, but we got stops when we had to and made some timely free throws.”
Woodard went off for a game-high 33 points, while Lawrence chimed in with 17. Harris and Brown joined Glover and Hagans in double figures with 13 and 12 points apiece.
Newton (17-3, 4-1) handed the top-ranked team in Class AAA its first loss of the season, but the way Morgan County (20-1, 6-0) played gave Sims some confidence that his team could, indeed, make a championship run.
“I think we had a couple of uncharacteristic plays on offense for us that aren’t necessarily bad plays, but just plays we typically don’t make,” Sims said. “At the end of the day, I’m not satisfied with the outcome of the game, as I think we should’ve been able to pull it out. But I’m pleased with the overall effort in competition. When we broke the locker room down, I told our guys the goal is real simple — 11-0 for the rest of the season. But that can’t start until we start our streak again with our next opponent.”
As for Morgan County’s previous 20-game winning streak, Glover says he takes pride in knowing that Newton made a new streak necessary.
“This win builds our confidence,” Glover said. “They’re a good team, but they were talking a lot, and we had to just show ‘em. We came in here and ended their streak.”
Things won’t get easier for Newton as it will travel to face No. 7 Grayson in a Region 8-AAAAAAA rematch Tuesday. Grayson handed Newton its lone region loss in a 74-73 setback on Dec. 12.