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STATE BASKETBALL: Newton hoops teams face tough obstacles between themselves and the Elite Eight
Newton senior guard Lexii Chatman was named the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Class 7A North Player of the Year. - photo by Anthony Banks

COVINGTON, Ga. — A little revenge and a chance for some rarified air. 

That’s what both Newton Rams basketball squads will be after come Thursday when both teams hit the hardwood in the Class AAAAAAA GHSA state tournament. 

The Lady Rams have been here before — a few times under coach Tiffani Johnson. But Johnson feels like this team she has this year has a different gear than her previous 12 that she’s coached. 

With six seniors on this team, including four-year contributors Lexii Chatman, Jurnee Smith, Erianna Card and Takiya Cotton, there seems to be a bit of urgency in the way they’re playing now — a sense of “if not now, then never” at play. 

When the aforementioned senior trio were freshman, Newton finished the season 17-10 overall, ending with a pair of four-point losses — first to Tucker in the region tournament and then to Colquitt County in the first round of state. 

The following year, Newton goes 22-7 with a loss in the region tournament championship game to Tucker once again. Despite that, Johnson’s squad beat Langston Hughes in the first round of state before losing to West Forsyth in the Sweet 16. 

Then, of course, last year, Newton lost to Archer in double overtime in the region championship game and then fell unexpectedly to Duluth, at home, in the state tourney’s first round. 

But this group of battle tested seniors are playing smarter, faster and with more passion than perhaps ever before, and they know that this is the last chance they’ll have to accomplish every team’s ultimate preseason goal. 

“We definitely want to go out on top this season,” Chatman said. “And this is the last time we’ll have as seniors to do this with each other,” Chatman said. 

Meanwhile, the third-ranked boys squad will have a chance to get back at Mountain View from the one-point overtime loss it suffered to the Bears right before Christmas in a holiday showcase. 

Newton coach Rick Rasmussen was slightly annoyed at his team’s concentration lapses against Central Gwinnett Saturday, particularly on defense. But the Rams did play without theservices of 6-foot-6 junior Armani Harris, who — fresh off his first college scholarship offer from Limestone — should be good to go Thursday after missing Saturday’s game to rest a sore ankle. 

Take a look at our capsulized look at Thursday’s Sweet 16 clashes. 


The Matchup: Lambert Longhorns (18-9, 9-2 in Region 5-AAAAAAA) at No. 6 Newton (24-3, 9-1 in Region 8-AAAAAAA). 

The Venue: Thursday Feb. 22, 6 p.m. at Newton High School, 1 Ram Way, Covington, GA.

The Playmakers: We talk about Newton’s seniors, but Lambert also has a good core of grizzled veterans, such as senior Skylar Aledia. The 5-foot-5 guard stepped up in a major way in Saturday’s first-round win over Mill Creek, as she scored 13 of her 17 points in the fourth quarter of a come-from-behind win. Sidney Chason, Reagan Pasonski, Jaleah Greene and Katie Schwind, all seniors, were also integral parts of Lambert’s first round triumph. 

Newton continues to see strong play from its supporting cast. Players like junior Rachel Hilliard, senior Takiya Cotton, sophomore Je-Naya Smith and junior Jada Franklin. And now that Diamond Swift is playing her best basketball of the season, Newton’s got a very reliable third scoring option to complement Jurnee Smith and Chatman. 

The Outlook: The intangibles will be in full force in this one as Newton seems to be locked in on finishing this season with two pieces of championship hardware on its mantle, while Lambert will undoubtedly be trying to dedicate the rest of its season to its coach, Jaime Fisher, who will step down from her duties at the end of the season to spend more time with her 1-year old son. 


The Matchup: No. 6 Mountain View (22-5, 9-3 in Region 7-AAAAAAA) at No. 3 Newton (25-3, 9-1 in Region 7-AAAAAAA)

The Venue: Thursday Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m. at Newton High School. 

The Playmakers: Coach Rasmussen said he likes the way 6-foot-3 senior guard Spencer Rodgers shoots the ball. And 6-foot-3 senior guard Kevin Kayongo can fill it up as well. The Bears are also solid defensively, as they’ve given up 60 or more points in a game just three times this season — one of those games was that December 16 overtime win against the Rams. They have the quickness to bother Newton on the perimeter and take away the 3-point shot. But nobody this season has shown they have the ability to stay in front of Ashton Hagans for the duration of an entire game. 

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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

The Rams have also continued to enjoy solid play from reserve seniors Gabe Gates and Juwan Johnson, and when Tyler Glover is locked in, he gives the Rams a solid energy player off the bench who can also pick his spots to score.  

The Outlook: Both of these teams are different, and probably better, than they were during that December meeting. During the first matchup, Newton was still breaking in four players who weren’t quite used to the pressures of being starters for a top-10 Class AAAAAAA school. Even with that, Newton was up 34-26 at the half in that first contest, and Mountain View needed to hit a contested 3-pointer at the buzzer of regulation to send it into overtime, and used another 3-ball with three seconds left in the extra frame by a player who only had two points beforehand in order to win. Newton was also coming off a one-point loss to Grayson as well and may have been reeling just a bit. This time around, Newton will have a more experienced ball club and the energy of a packed home gym behind it.