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STATE BASKETBALL: Previewing Newton's state tournament games against Central Gwinnett
Ashton Hagans glides through the air on the tail-end of a windmill dunk during a regular season game at Archer. Hagans leads No. 3 Newton in scoring and assists. - photo by Anthony Banks

COVINGTON, Ga. -- When the Newton Rams basketball teams go into Saturday’s first round GHSA state tournament games with Central Gwinnett, they’ll do so riding the momentum of a huge weekend where Newton swept the Region 8-AAAAAAA championship games. 

And among the many storylines that accompany this year’s soiree into the state tourney, one that can’t be lost is the fact that for both the girls and boys squads, last year ended with a taste of unfinished business. 

Both teams probably feel as if their 2016-17 seasons ended prematurely — certainly that’s the vibe from the Lady Rams’ camp, as it took an unexpected home loss to Duluth as a No. 2 seed in the first round.

Newton’s Lexii Chatman hasn’t forgotten. 

“We don’t look back at those games, but we know we can’t come out like that again,” Chatman said. “You’ve got to remember that in the first round, those teams want it as bad as we do. So we don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, we went down to Duluth in the first round last year, and it’s gonna happen again this time.’ We push through and we have the right chip on our shoulder that we’ve gotta go and get it done from the start.” 

Meanwhile for the boys, Newton came into last year’s state tournament ranked No. 1 in Georgia and carrying a consistent top-15 ranking nationally. 

After dethroning Westlake, the previous year’s defending state champs in a triple overtime thriller, and looking almost unbeatable for the better part of the season, it seemed like clear sailing to Newton’s first state crown since the 1960s. 

Tift County had other ideas. Tift would defeat Newton in the Elite Eight round and then power through the gauntlet side of the Class AAAAAAA bracket to hoist the state title hardware. 

This year, the Rams are a different looking bunch, not packing some of last year’s firepower, but still boasting one of the best point guards and prep players in the country. That means Newton will still be a difficult out, and coach Rick Rasmussen still wants to make a state title run. 

“Humble and hungry,” Rasmussen said. “That’s what we’re preaching to them now.” 

So far, the focus has been there for the third-ranked Rams (24-3, 9-1), which has lost its three games against state-ranked competition by a combined seven points. 

Led by a matured Hagans and an ever-improving front line of 6-foot-6 junior Armani Harris and 6-foot-5 senior Dre Butler and sharpshooting junior guard Tyrease Brown, don’t count out these Rams. 
Here’s an analytical unpacking of this Saturday’s Central Gwinnett matchups for both teams. 


Jurnee Smith
Newton's Jurnee Smith scores on a circus shot against South Gwinnett in Saturday's region championship game. The senior guard has been one of the mainstays in the Lady Rams' first region title team in five years. - photo by Gabriel Stovall


Girls

The Matchup: Central Gwinnett (12-14, 7-6 in Region 7-AAAAAAA) at No. 6 Newton (23-3, 9-1 in Region 8-AAAAAAA). 

The Venue: 6:30 p.m. at Newton High School, 1 Ram Way, Covington, GA. 

The Playmakers: For Central Gwinnett the scoring gets disseminated fairly evenly with junior Armani Milton (9.1 ppg) and 5-foot-9 senior Dalen Tate (8.6 ppg) the closest to averaging double figures. 
For Newton, everyone will look to the usual suspects, Chatman, Jurnee Smith and junior Diamond Swift for the scoring. But the emergence of 5-foot-9 post player Rachel Hilliard is huge. Also, Erianna Card and Je-nya Smith provide some size and flexibility, while Jada Franklin and Takiya Cotton are solid off-the-bench backcourt compliments. 

The Outlook: The Lady Black Knights have played some of their best ball when it counts most — down the stretch of the season. Before losing to highly ranked Norcross and Parkview in the region tournament, Central Gwinnett had ripped off four wins in their five previous games — its best stint of the season. Meanwhile, the last time we saw an uninspired Lady Rams bunch was back on Nov. 20 in a 48-40 setback to Harrison. Since then, they’ve gone 20-2, losing only to Shades Valley (Ala.) in a tournament in Birmingham, and to South Gwinnett in the regular season in a game where Newton held a double-digit lead late. Winning their first region championship in five years after several close finishes has this senior-heavy team riding high with confidence it hasn’t had in the postseason in quite some time. 

Into the Future: If the Lady Rams take care of business against Central Gwinnett Saturday, they would face either Lambert (16-10, 8-3 in Region 5-AAAAAAA) or Mill Creek (15-10, 7-5 in Region 6-AAAAAAA)

Boys

The Matchup: Central Gwinnett (8-16, 4-8 in Region 7-AAAAAAA) at No. 3 Newton (24-3, 9-1 in Region 7-AAAAAAA)

The Venue: 8 p.m. at Newton High School. 

The Playmakers: Combo guard Bernard Kasanda is the Central Gwinnett player to look out for if you’re Newton. The 5-foot-10 senior was a Region 7-AAAAAAA honorable mention selection and teams up with fellow honorable mention performer Marvin Louis-Charles to make a formidable backcourt. For Newton, of course, things start and stop with Hagans and the aforementioned front court. But Rasmussen made mention of the play he’s getting from others off his bench, particularly senior Gabe Gates who scored eight points and grabbed a few key rebounds in Saturday’s region championship game. “He makes us deeper,” Rasmussen said of Gates. “He’s got a high basketball IQ. He’s in the right spots defensively. He’s a good player for us.” 

The Outlook: Look, it’s state tournament time. So that means you can never really just write off a team based on their record. The Black Knights picked the perfect time to break a six-game skid — in the region tournament. Central Gwinnett defeated Berkmar and Lakeside before falling to No. 2 Norcross. Meanwhile, Newton — just like their Lady Ram counterparts — haven’t had many moments where they didn’t look sharp. This year’s team may not be as flash as last year’s, but it’s arguable that it could be more built to finish off the state tournament beyond last year’s Elite Eight appearance. But none of that happens if the Rams overlook this plucky Central Gwinnett squad. 

Into the Future: If Newton gets past Central Gwinnett, the No. 3 Rams would face either Milton (16-11, 8-2 in Region 5-AAAAAAA) or No. 7 Mountain View (21-5, 9-3 in Region 6-AAAAAAA). Mountain View clipped Newton 66-65 in overtime back in December during the Gwinnett Metro ATL Challenge.