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STATE BASKETBALL: 'Heart over height' is the Newton rallying cry against Wheeler in Elite Eight
Newton's Armani Harris throws down a dunk in a regular season game against region foe Grayson. Harris, standing at 6-foot-6, is the Rams' tallest player. - photo by Anthony Banks

COVINGTON, Ga. — It’s probably safe to assume that Tyler Glover won’t mind having some of his words stolen for motivation when No. 3 Newton (26-3) meets Wheeler (18-10) in Wednesday’s Class AAAAAAA boys basketball state tournament game. 

When asked about his thoughts on how to defend the season's biggest opponent — literally speaking, with a frontline that goes 6-foot-10, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-7 — in the biggest game to date, junior Armani Harris drew back on his diminutive teammate’s words of wisdom. 

“It’s heart over height,” Harris said. “That’s our forte right now. And it’s something, really, that I got from Tyler. He’s the shortest guy on our team (about 5-foot-7), but he brings it every day. He brings his heart to every game.” 

Harris, a 6-foot-6 junior, will team up with 6-foot-5 senior, Dre Butler, to try and neutralize the ample size advantage the Wildcats will have when they swing into Covington for Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. Elite Eight matchup. 

The Wildcats, armed with 6-foot-10 senior power forward EJ Montgomery — widely regarded as the top class of 2018 player in Georgia — will likely trot out three or four people onto the court at a time who are at least two inches taller than Harris, who is Newton’s tallest player. 

EJ Montgomery
It will literally be a tall order for Newton to try and corral Wheeler's 6-foot-10 power forward, EJ Montgomery and the Wheeler front court players Austin Johnson (6-foot-9) and Brandon Younger (6-foot-7). - photo by Anthony Banks

It’s an arduous task for Butler and Harris, but one that Butler, a UT-Chattanooga football signee — says he’s not backing down from. 

“You just have to go stronger than them,” Butler said. “They’re gonna try to push you around and everything, because of their length. And they’re going to try and jump over you and out jump you. But you’ve basically just got to be powerful. Be you and stand your ground.” 

Newton head coach Rick Rasmussen was even more direct when discussing his confidence, and the necessity, of his front line having a big game. 

“I know they can,” Rasmussen said. “They’d better. That’s the bottom line. And we know what they’re capable of. Their front line is 6-9, 6-10, 6-7. Ours is 6-6 and 6-5. Ashton (Hagans), at 6-foot-4, is probably our third big player on the court at once.” 

Rasmussen could also go with reserves Gabe Gates (6-foot-4 with long wing span) and Shawn Butler, another 6-foot-6 senior, “depending on the situation.” But Rasmussen knows the brunt of the work in containing the Wildcats’ size will rest on the shoulders of Harris and Butler. 

The wildcard in the Rams’ chances to best a confident Wheeler bunch that’s won six of its last eight games could actually be the play of its perimeter players — guys like Tyrease Brown, Tre Clark and, yes, Glover as well — who make Newton an exponentially better team when they’re shooting it well.  

Dre B
At 6-foot-5, Dre Butler (pictured), along with 6-foot-6 junior Armani Harris will look to play above the rim to combat Wheeler's height Wednesday. - photo by Anthony Banks

“We definitely need to play well from the perimeter,” Rasmussen said. “We need to shoot the ball well and make good decisions. Taking care of the ball, having discernment will be key. Knowing when to get it inside or when to take it outside. Handling pressure. Guard play will be extremely important.” 

In Saturday’s Sweet 16 win over Mountain View, the Rams survived a much smaller, but hot-shooting ballclub that drained 12 3-pointers. But not to be lost in that impressive stat is the fact that Newton drilled eight treys of its own, while going 25-of-26 from the free throw line. 

And while Rasmussen feels the matchup between his guards and Wheeler’s guards may be a bit more favorable than that with Mountain View, he’s also quick to point out the fact that Wheeler’s backcourt is no slouch. 

“Their guard Isaiah Holt has been really shooting the ball well,” Rasmussen said. “He’s a guy who can hit two or three 3-pointers in a row, or for or five or even six in a game. He can get hot. And then, of course, (point guard) Jaire Eastmand, he’s the driver. Austin Johnson is really the one coach Larry Thompson likes to play inside and Brandon Younger is 6-7, but he can shoot it a bit. So we’ll have our hands full.” 

Still, the major focus will be on Montgomery — a consensus five-star prospect, considered the nation’s No.3 power forward by, who many feel will end up signing with Duke. Beyond his double-double average and imposing low-post presence, Rasmussen says Wheeler’s star actually has something in common with his own top player in Hagans. 

“EJ passes it well,” he said. “They like to run some high-low stuff, some cross screening where they pass it side to side, and from block to block. If you double one of those big guys, they’ll dump it to the other. It’ll be tough to stop.” 

Harris knows that. But, like Butler and Glover, Harris says they’re not going to make a bigger deal of their opponent’s height than what’s necessary. 

“It’s a tough challenge, for sure,” he said. “But me and Dre are ready to take over. We want to play as hard as we can every game. It's not about who’s taller or who’s not. At this point, it’s about how much heart you put in the game.” 

Wheeler coach high on Hagans, Newton program

Wheeler coach, Larry Thompson is in his first year at the helm of the traditional state powerhouse program, but he’s been around long enough to have a ton of respect for what Newton and Rasmussen have done, not just this year, but over the last decade-plus. 

“It’s kind of a next-man-up kind of organization,” Thompson said. “Last year, J.D. (Notae) and Isaiah (Miller) are lighting it up. They go to college and they just plug in the next guys up and come out and win 25 ball games. You’re tempted to think they’re not as good as they were a year ago with the pieces they lost, but here they are back in the Elite Eight again. It’s impressive.” 

Wheeler coach Larry Thompson was high on Newton point guard Ashton Hagans' progress toward becoming a complete player. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

Thompson also had good things to say about Hagans, the class of 2019 player who holds the same top state ranking that Montgomery does in 2018. 

“Ashton’s a kid we know wants to get downhill,” he said. “But he’s a pretty damn good shooter too. You can’t pack it in on him. He wasn’t as consistent last year with knocking it down around the arc, but now he’s just complete. Guys not guarding Ashton can’t get caught ball-watching. He’ll slip around and get those easy layups. He’ll take advantage of open cutbacks. You’ve gotta guard him with almost no help.” 

Elite Repeat

Wednesday won’t be the first time these two Class AAAAAAA heavyweights have met in the Elite Eight. Back in 2015, the Rams locked horns with Wheeler in the same round, and dropped 72-54 decision to a Wildcats team that would go on to edge Pebblebrook for the state crown, and then narrowly lose to Huntington St. Joseph Prep in the quarterfinals of the National High School Basketball Championship Tournament. 

What’s potentially around the corner

If the Rams are victorious Wednesday, things won’t get any easier as they’ll move on to face the winner of No. 1 McEachern (No. 6 in the nation, according to MaxPreps) against No. 2 Norcross in the Final Four round, played at Buford City Arena on Saturday afternoon. 

Regardless of how things shake out Wednesday, Rasmussen said he likes the fact that four of Georgia’s top programs are vying for Class 7A supremacy in the Elite Eight. 

“There’s really going to be two great matchups with four awesome, household names in Georgia with McEachern and Norcross, ourselves and Wheeler,” he said. “Like last year, this side of the bracket is brutal. But it’s an exciting time, and I think it’s just good for the state tournament and Georgia basketball in general.”