COVINGTON, Ga. — The scoreboard said 92-63, Newton. But the look on Rams coach Rick Rasmussen’s face said something different.
Maybe it’s because prior to the third-ranked Rams’ drubbing of a clearly overmatched Central Gwinnett squad during Saturday night’s first round Class AAAAAAA state tournament action, the long-time Newton coach spent time watching both a familiar and now future foe.
Newton dominated the action from the beginning, jumping out to a 14-3 lead against the Black Knights. It saw five players reach double figures, including Ashton Hagans who had a game-high 21 points and Tyrease Brown who chipped in 18.
But there were too many defensive lapses for Rasmussen’s liking. The kind of lapses that he said can spell doom for Newton when it faces Mountain View in the state tournament’s Sweet 16 round.
“It was just execution,” he said. “Leaving hot shooters wide open and not being in the right spots. those are the kinds of things we can’t do against a better opponent.”
An opponent like Mountain View which soundly defeated what many considered a decent Milton team 78-43 Saturday night. Rasmussen said he caught enough of that game and saw enough of the Bears’ performance to fuel some of his concerns.
“I saw them play, and they were on fire,” he said. “Number 22 can really shoot it. They play fast and aggressive. They’re a really good team that’s playing really well right now.”
Add to that the fact that Newton’s already got some first-hand experience with their next state tourney opponent. Newton was nipped by Mountain View by a point during a pre-Christmas showcase in December.
Despite that, at least from a non-coach’s view, the Rams looked every bit as impressive against Central Gwinnett. Newton took that hot and start parlayed it into a 26-13 first quarter lead which turned into a 51-23 advantage at the half.
With 6-foot-6 junior Armani Harris out of the game nursing an ankle injury, seniors Juwan Johnson and Gabe Gates drew the start and didn’t disappoint — particularly Gates who finished with 10 points with eight of them coming in the third quarter.
Dre Butler had 11 points, six of them coming from three dunks, including a reverse slam on a fast break that got the crowd out of its seats. And while Rasmussen acknowledged that his team played loose and didn’t take its first round opponent lightly, he was also bullish on the fact that he wants to see a cleaner performance from his team going forward.
“We’ll definitely have to play better to beat Mountain View,” he said. “It’s the state tournament, so the intensity and execution definitely have to be better from here on.”
Winning the height challenge
When it comes to Newton basketball and some of the top ranked teams in the state, the Rams typically don’t have many height advantages, but that looks to change when Mountain View comes to town. According to the Bears’ MaxPreps roster, they have a pair of 6-foot-4 players in Kevin Kayongo and Cameron Jackson and a handful of 6-foot-3 guys, but no big, back-to-the-basket type bruisers. Meanwhile, Newton’s front court has been bolstered by the presence of the 6-foot-6 Armani Harris and 6-foot-5 forward Dre Butler who, in addition to his height, has the imposing football body build to match.
Coming into the state tournament, Newton was Region 8-AAAAAAA’s highest ranked scoring offense, averaging 78 points per game and scoring close to 400 total points more than second-place Grayson. Newton’s 92 points against Central Gwinnett marked the third time this season the Rams hit the 90-point mark. Compare that to six 90-plus point games, including a pair of 100-point performances from last year’s team. It goes to show that even though this year’s version of Newton basketball doesn’t have quite the scoring punch of last year’s Elite Eight squad, it isn’t far behind.
Armani Harris gets first offer
Although the junior center was walking around in a boot, giving an ankle he injured during Newton’s last regular season game with Grayson extra time to heal, Harris still had reasons to smile. Harris picked up his first college scholarship offer this past week from Limestone, the same school that former Rams star Jaquan Simms now plays for. Harris said he was excited and encouraged to receive his first, and hopes it won’t be his last.
“You always think about what that first offer is going to be and who it’s going to come from,” Harris said. “So I’m excited about it. I’m glad it means that I’ll have somewhere to play college basketball. Limestone seems like such a good school, and I hope I’ll just continue to get recruited from them and keep getting offers as I continue to get better.”
Getting better is exactly what Harris said such recruiting attention has inspired him to do.
“It definitely makes you want to work harder,” he said. “It just feels good to know that there are schools out there that want you to play for them.
By the way, Simms, a redshirt freshman at Limestone, tied a career-high with 27 points in a win against Barton this past week.