Newton High School was the better team for 30 minutes, but 30 minutes of near-perfect basketball wasn’t enough in a 32-minute game Saturday. The length and athleticism of the Westlake High basketball team took over in the final two minutes and the Lions beat Newton 64-59.
Up by two with just more than two minutes left, the Rams turned the ball over and Westlake was able to tie it. Turnovers killed Newton, and the Lions length was a problem for the Rams, allowing Westlake to take a lead at the 1:23 mark of the fourth it never surrendered.
“I thought turnovers down the stretch were the difference in the game,” Newton Coach Rick Rasmussen said. “Our defensive game plan was well-executed by the players. They did everything we asked ‘em to do. We were right there. We had ‘em where we wanted ‘em and we just had a few too many turnovers down the stretch….I thought the difference was just the last two minutes of the game.
“We played a great game, executed the game plan, the kids gave us everything they had, I thought our guards were outstanding. I thought the defense of our front line was outstanding. They all played their hearts out and I couldn’t be more proud of ‘em. We could taste it. We just didn’t get to eat it.”
Newton arrived early and was the first to touch the hardwood at the University of West Georgia after the Tucker girls advanced to the state championship with a win over Douglas County. Westlake arrived about four minutes after the Rams hit the court, with much more height on the roster. Both teams donned their royal blue, but Westlake was the home team so they wore white shorts and white jerseys with black trim and blue and white lettering while Newton took the court in blue shorts and blue jerseys with white trim and black lettering.
Okeke went to work early and used his length to score over Josh Tukes. JD Notae’s triple answered a 4-0 start by Westlake and Newton forced a turnover as Notae got in the paint to give the Rams a 5-4 lead on the following possession.
With Westlake’s length they attempted to trap Newton and force turnovers, simultaneously slowing the game down, but it didn’t work.
The Rams played terrific defense to start the game, forced some early turnovers, stayed with their assignments and switched accordingly. Chaz Tanner’s tenacity was a big boost for Newton, despite being undersized compared to Westlake’s front line that features at least one or two 6-foot-8 guys at all times.
Playing with Tanner was Josh Tukes, at 6-foot-6, who played like he was a seven-footer. Tukes played well as a help defender off the weak side and even blocked a couple of shots.
“[Tukes] went up against a lot of length and athleticism and a major Division I front line and held his own. I thought he played great,” Rasmussen said. “I thought he and Chaz Tanner combined down there just battled, did everything they could do. JD was down there some. For the difference in size and length and athleticism I thought our kids gave a great effort.”
Ashton Hagans was able to blow past two Westlake defenders, draw another and find Tukes for the open layup and the Rams led 18-14 after the first.
Second chance shots killed Newton, but the offense was able to answer. Back-to-back 3s by Hagans and Simms gave Newton a 26-21 lead. Hagans followed with a jumper to make it 28-21, but Westlake responded and ended the half on a 10-3 run taking a 31-30 lead into halftime.
Okeke and Noate battled against each other in the first half. Notae had the upper hand, scoring 14 in the first half, including 10 of Newton’s first 11 points, while Okeke had eight.
The Lions took a 41-39 lead in the third quarter, but Tukes went to work. The junior center scored five straight to give Newton a one-point lead and Notae’s two at the end of the third put the Rams up by three heading into the fourth.
The Rams would go up by as much as seven, playing well and under control. The Lions came storming back and got within one before Newton pushed it back to five as Tanner’s teardrop fell through the net with under five minutes to play.
The Rams will lose one of its big three, Jaquan Simms, after this season, but outside of he and defensive specialist Marvin Boireau, most of the team remains intact.
“If we return everybody and everybody’s a year better, we’ll have a chance at a state championship. We’ve got a great junior class. We lost [DeAndrae Butler] who is a sophomore and we didn’t have Darvin [Jones] but for 15 percent of the season. Dre obviously could’ve made a difference in this game and we have a great freshman class. The future is bright,” said Rasmussen. “I wouldn’t expect it to be any different, but I think they got a taste of playing for a ring. We can taste it a little bit and we were on the cusp of playing for one next Saturday and so our message is handle your business in the offseason and we’ll be one of the favorites next year if we get everybody back.”