COVINGTON, Ga. — For a while it looked as if Rick Rasmussen was about to end the season on the wrong side of his own basketball prophecy.
Prior to Newton’s Sweet 16 rematch with No. 6 Mountain View, the third-ranked Rams’ head coach heaped praise upon Mountain View’s basketball team, particularly how well coached they are and how good they shoot, and he knew the Bears had the ability to light it up from 3-point range like few others still playing high school basketball in Georgia right now.
And it was that last part — the hot shooting part — that almost spelled doom for Newton’s state championship hopes.
The Rams overcame 12 3-pointers from Mountain View, while making a whopping 25 of 26 free throws themselves on their way to an 85-81 win that catapults Newton into an Elite Eight clash with E.J. Montgomery and the Wheeler Wildcats (17-10) on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
“We just dug down deep and found something extra,.” Rasmussen said. “I’m proud of the way our guys dug down deep and found a way to win the game.”
Newton was led by Ashton Hagans’ 28 points and 11 assists, while Dre Butler’s 23 and Armani Harris’ 14 also helped quell one of the hottest shooting teams left in the Class AAAAAAA state tournament.
Newton needed a come-from-behind effort that began late in the third quarter to pull this one out, thanks to a hot-shooting second quarter where Mountain View knocked down trio of 3-pointers en route to a 40-38 halftime lead.
The hot shooting continued into the third quarter, as Kevin Kayongo opened the period with a three-ball, following it up with another and then a third consecutive 3-point shot, this time by Naheim Allenye — part of his team-high 23 points — to push the Bears’ lead to 51-44 and the 3:35 mark of the third.
But that’s when the Rams would start their resurgence, as Butler, Hagans and Trey Clark each scored to spark a 6-0 run toward the end of the quarter to pull within two heading into the fourth.
Clark opened the final quarter by knocking down a 3-pointer of his own to give Newton a 55-54 lead — it’s first advantage since it was 32-30 late in the second quarter. Mountain View would reclaim that lead, though, with a Miles Long trey, putting the Bears back up 60-59 with 4:59 left in the game.
That’s when Newton shifted strategies a bit, and started getting the ball down low to capitalize on its front court height and size advantage. It’s the strategy that keyed a 12-1 run, ignited by six straight points from Harris, the 6-foot-6 junior. His last bucket in the spurt actually gave Newton a 73-61 lead at the 2:25 mark.
Spencer Rogers cut it in half, however, when he buried a pair of threes within 20 seconds of each other. Then another bucket by Long and one by Kayongo, before he fouled out, brought Mountain View back to within one point of tying with 1:39 remaining.
However, with Kayongo out, Mountain View struggled to find offense. Meanwhile, a pair of free throws by Hagans, followed by Butler’s and-one finish at the rim provided Newton with enough cushion to salt the game away with free throws.
The win gave Rasmussen his sixth Elite Eight appearance in 13 years as head coach, and his team’s hot free throw shooting performance caused him to wax reminiscent about a similar Sweet 16 triumph.
“This reminds me of a game in 2010 in the Sweet 16 where it was an overtime win over Lowndes,” Rasmussen said. “In that game, we went 22-for-22 from the line. Tonight it was the same kind of thing. We were behind, and we knew we had to make them. So Dre was knocking them down, Armani was knocking them down and Ashton was knocking them down because we just knew we had to make them.”
Now Newton must make it past a Wheeler squad that boasts a good deal of size, starting with 6-foot-10 center E.J. Montgomery — the consensus top 2018 prospect in Georgia and the No. 12 player in the nation, according to 247sports.com — in order to give Rasmussen his first trip back to the Final Four since the narrow loss to eventual 2015-16 state champion Westlake.
Newton will host Wheeler either Tuesday or Wednesday in what will probably be an Elite Eight doubleheader with the Lady Rams who will host Cherokee on the same day.
The winner of Newton-Wheeler will go on to face the winner of McEachern-Norcross in the Final Four round at Buford City Arena on March 3. But excuse Rasmussen for not being ready to think that far ahead just yet.
“We’ll have our hands full with Wheeler,” he said. “They’re a great, historic program. You’ve got EJ who’s really good and they’ve got some size. It’s going to be a really good challenge for us, and I’m looking forward to it.”