COVINGTON, Ga. — The ninth-ranked Newton Rams took home an impressive 77-54 win over a solid Lambert team Saturday in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA state tournament.
The victory pushed them forward to a Sweet 16 berth and marquee matchup with No. 3 Meadowcreek, the defending Class AAAAAAA state champions.
Before Saturday’s game, we raised five key points to victory for Newton. Here, we’ll revisit those and then offer up a look at Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. clash at Meadowcreek.
1. The Armani Harris show. Because of Harris’ 39-point explosion against 6-foot-8 Lambert forward Colin Granger, we expected Granger, along with the rest of the Longhorns, to be a little revenge-minded. And perhaps he was. But it did nothing to slow Harris down.
All the 6-foot-7 Newton senior did was pour in 23 points, including 13 in a pivotal third quarter that allowed the Rams to start creating separation. But it wasn’t just his scoring. Harris added 13 rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and two steals, leading Lambert coach Scott Bracco to call Harris “the most underrated player in the state.”
You’ll get no arguments here.
2. The unsung hero. Before Saturday’s game, we stated that the winning team would likely be able to point to a player in its backcourt who may not be a marquee name on the roster, but would play like it on that night. Newton was the winner in this category as it got a career-high 25-point performance from junior combo guard, Shawn Smith. He added three rebounds, three assists and two steals to his impressive stat line.
As good as Newton’s big three of Harris, Tre Clark and Tyrease Brown is, Smith is a major x-factor. If the Rams can get similar scoring production and quality ball handling from Smith Thursday, it’s not hard to see Newton taking one from Meadowcreek and punching their ticket to a fourth straight Elite Eight appearance.
3. Adjustments made. Lambert kept things tight in the first half. Like a four-point halftime deficit tight. While Harris did his biggest damage in the second half, it was Shawn Smith doing his thing in the first half. But that’s likely because of the adjustments made at the break by Newton and assistant coach Terrance Demps who stood in for head coach Rick Rasmussen Saturday night.
Newton’s defense stymied Granger to just 10 points, held point guard Mitch Ganote to just 15 and closed out on Lambert’s 3-point shooters, holding them to just four made shots from behind the arc all night and only one in the second half. Credit a tremendous game plan that included Mike Mathison getting the start and playing solid defense much of the night on Ganote and Lambert’s backcourt.
4. A program win. That’s what coach Demps called it, and we agree. For Newton to play as well as it did against a solid team with ample talent and revenge motivation at their disposal, and to do so without its head coach pacing the sidelines is a major testament to the leadership imprint coach Rick Rasmussen has left on this team and this program. Rarely will you see a Newton basketball team playing unsound, undisciplined basketball. That can be attributed to coaching. And sometimes the best measurement of good leadership is how a group performs when the main leader isn’t there.
5. Looking ahead. And by looking ahead, we mean Thursday at Meadowcreek. Don’t you dare look past Thursday at Meadowcreek. Before even thinking about a potential Elite Eight matchup with Etowah or Pebblebrook, Newton’s got to find it’s way past a defending state champ. Here are a few things to consider about the Mustangs:
-Not as much height. Unlike last year’s team that boasted extraordinary height mismatches with players such as 6-foot-7 Cory Hightower or 6-foot-9 Amari Kelly, the Mustangs’ tallest player listed on the roster is 6-foot-6 junior Jammonie Watkins-Causey who contributes as a role player.
But Meadowcreek’s got a ton of 6-foot-4ish players with tons of athleticism, such as senior Jamir Chaplin who’s averaging north of 15 points and six rebounds per game. But it’s 5-foot-10 senior Jalen Benjamin who’s been the team’s leading scorer, at 18 points per game.
-Rounding out its big three. Damian Dunn is one of those 6-foot-4 swing guys who can score inside and outside the paint. He tallies about 13 points and seven boards per contest. He helps give the Mustangs a three-man juggernaut that can possibly rival that of Newton's.
-Meadowcreek is a battle-tested bunch. Three of its five losses this season? An eight-point loss in November to Wasatch Academy (Utah), the top-ranked squad in Utah and the No. 18 team in the nation, according to MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 rankings in the Holiday Hoopsgiving showcase, a one-point loss to Mountain Brook, the top-ranked team in Alabama and No. 6 squad in the country and a four-point loss to Grayson — Georgia’s No. 2 ranked team (according to MaxPreps), and also a team Newton lost to three times this season.
The others were also respectable: a 12-point loss to Tennessee’s top-ranked team, Bartlett and a nine-point setback to rival Norcross to end the regular season. Meadowcreek avenged that loss by besting Norcross 46-44 in the Region 7-AAAAAAA tournament championship game.
Newton at Meadowcreek If You Go:
When: Thursday, February 21, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Meadowcreek High School gym, 4455 Steve Reynolds Blvd., Norcross.
How Much: Tickets for this Sweet 16 state tournament matchup are $7 per person and can be purchased online through the GoFan app.