COVINGTON, Ga. — Ashton Hagans felt the extra spring in his step when he got up for his morning workout Wednesday morning, less than 15 hours before the Wheeler game.
He knew the stakes. A trip to the Class AAAAAAA state tournament’s Final Four round — his second in three years. The in-game undercurrent showdown with Wheeler star EJ Montgomery, and of course, the smorgasbord of college basketball coaches who mad the trip to Covington — the tip of what can be still be considered “metro Atlanta” without anybody laughing at you for saying it.
Georgetown coach and NBA legend Patrick Ewing had his entire staff there. Steve Wojciechowski, former Duke Blue Devil and current men’s basketball coach at Marquette was there, full staff in tow.
But all Hagans, the 6-foot-4 5-star point guard — and recent Georgia decommit — cared about was finding someone to dunk on.
“When I was working out (Wednesday) morning, I just kept talking and saying I felt like I’m gonna catch a body today,” Hagans said. “And that’s what happened.”
To catch a body, in pop-culture basketball lingo, means to posterize someone. To throw down a thunderous slam dunk in their face, and to bask in the glory of it that gets bestowed upon the dunker by his home crowd.
And yes, it did happen. At the 2:43 mark of the fourth quarter in Newton’s 87-81 win over Wheeler to be exact. To make it even sweeter, it happened over the outstretched arms of Wheeler’s Montgomery, widely considered the top player in Georgia for the class of 2018 and the nation’s No. 3 power forward prospect.
Ladies and gentlemen: Ashton Hagans. A huge slam to send a fired up crowd into a frenzy. Newton up 77-68 over Wheeler in the 4th.— SUVtv (@SUVtv) March 1, 2018
Watch live: https://t.co/L7f5fUuvqi@h23ash @NewtonRamsBball @GAHoopCircle @AthleticsNewton @CovNewsSports @Sacmcrenshaw23 @HSBasketballBR #SUVtv pic.twitter.com/Tq9Ek4ZR9f
At that point it was a 76-62 game. Newton had led by as much as 20 at one point, before Wheeler’s Isaiah Holt and Kenny Burns got hot in the fourth quarter, knocking down five fourth quarter 3-pointers combined to help chop the lead back down to single digits.
But an assortment of clutch buckets and free throws by Hagans, Armani Harris, Tre Clark and Tyrease Brown in the game’s final two minutes helped the Rams stave off the comeback-minded Wildcats.
“We did enough things, made enough free throws down the stretch to keep our lead,” said Newton coach Rick Rasmussen. “But it doesn’t really matter how you get it. An ugly win is better than a pretty loss.”
There was nothing ugly about Hagans’ play on Wednesday, though.
Hagans had a game-high 31 points, one better than Montgomery’s 30. But Tyrease Brown’s 18 points, including a trio of 3-pointers, and some gutsy buckets in the paint amid the trees that were Wheeler’s lengthy front court.
“We played great as a team,” Brown said. “Armani and Dre (Butler) played good against their height. And Ashton, he starts us. He gets us going first, and then he can take over a game.”
Rasmussen also lauded his star floor general for how he took control of the action when his team needed it most.
“I thought he was in attack mode pretty much all night,” Rasmussen said. “He got a little tired at the end, so he had a few turnovers. When you’re in attack mode, he’s giving his heart and didn’t have anything left in the tank at the end. But that’s the way it is. You give it your all, lay it all on the line and let the results speak for itself. I’m really proud of the way he’s being attacking and aggressive in these games. That’s what you have to do.”
Newton will have a quick turnaround before having to play No. 4 Norcross (27-3) in the Final Four on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Buford City Arena. The Blue Devils sent mild shockwaves through the state tournament landscape, not just by beating McEachern, but thoroughly dominating them in their 75-55 Elite Eight win, also on Wednesday night.
But when Hagans heard about it, he did little more than shrug it off — not out of any disrespect, but because of what he knew he’ll truly have to focus on.
“It doesn’t matter at all who we would play,” Hagans said. “I’m bringing the same intensity every game. We’ll listen to the coaches’ game plan, go hard in practice these next two days and try to keep things simple. We’ve got two more games to see if we can get this ring. I say we’ve got two more games, because that’s how I see it.”