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STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: An early look at Wednesday's Tift County-Newton matchup
Preston Horne
Tift County's Preston Horne (24) is a Virginia Tech commit who's averaging close to 24 points and eight rebounds per game. - photo by Submitted Photo | The Covington News

So as exciting as last Thursday’s triple overtime win against Westlake was, we can’t talk about it forever, simply because Newton still has three more games to play and win if it wants to hoist the Class AAAAAAA state championship hardware.

Next up is a Tift County team that has size, strength and the ability to get out in transition – a formidable test, perhaps made a little less ominous, thanks to Newton’s winning the Friday coin toss that gave it home court advantage.

Here’s a sneak peak preview at Wednesday’s Elite Eight matchup with Tift County:


When: Wednesday March 1, 7 p.m.

Where: At Newton High School’s gymnasium, 1 Ram Way, Covington, GA 30014

The Matchup: Tift County (26-2 overall, Ranked No. 6 by ScoreAtlanta & No. 7 by AJC and Maxpreps) at Newton (28-1 overall, Ranked No. 1 by MaxPreps, No. 2 by ScoreAtlanta & No. 3 by AJC).

The Playmakers for Tift County: For the Blue Devils, the name of the game is size, starting with 6-foot-6 (maybe closer to 6-foot-8)  Preston Horne. The Virginia Tech commit is a versatile big man who can body up an opponent in the paint, or pop outside behind the arc to drain a three. Horne has bounced back well from missing much of last season with a torn ACL. He’s putting in 23.3 points and snagging about eight rebounds per game. But he isn’t a one man show. Seniors Malcolm Johnson and Fred Lloyd average about 10 points per game, and help Tift get out in transition. Defensively, Tift will likely come out in a man-to-man, which is something that has given Newton problems this season – see the Region 8-AAAAAAA semifinal game against South Gwinnett and the second half of the Westlake game. The achilles heel for Tift County, however, is its bench which virtually offers very little scoring punch at all.

The Playmakers for Newton: Round up the usual suspects for the Rams. Isaiah Miller, Ashton Hagans and J.D. Notae are the seasoned core that push this explosive team. But the down-the-stretch performances of senior Darvin Jones and sophomore Colby Rogers cannot be understated. Senior Josh Tukes, a 6-foot-6 center, and his 6-foot-5 reserve sophomore Armani Harris will have to continue providing key presence against yet another big front line. Tukes and Harris – Tukes especially – won’t light up the scoreboard, but their rebounding and shot blocking potential can help Newton match well with Tift County’s bigs.

The Intangibles: The last time Tift County and Newton met, it was in 2015 when a young Rams squad went on the road and upset a defending state champion in the first round of the state tournament. That was during Horne’s sophomore season. Horne couldn’t do much to help his team last year, due to injury, so it’ll be a safe bet that the senior will be chomping at the bit to help his team return the favor at Newton. Meanwhile, the big task for this year’s Rams squad will be wrapping their heads around the Tift County task and approaching it with the same fervor as they did the Westlake revenge game. If Newton is still emotionally hungover from last week’s win, this Tift County bunch is good enough to come to Covington and pull out a win.

Coach Rasmussen Says: “Tift County is scary talented. They’ve got length at guard, and they’ll be outweighing us on the front line. They’re going to be confident. They just like to pound it and pound it inside to their two big bruisers, and they may even be better on the front line than what we saw against Westlake. The interesting thing is they also can get it going on the perimeter and in transition, and if they do that they can get scary. We’re going to have to do well against them in the halfcourt to be successful. We have to do some different things to keep their bigs off the boards and see if we can speed it up a bit and hit some shots.”

What’s Next: The winner of this game will move on to play either undefeated McEachern or Wheeler in the Final Four at West Georgia in Carrollton on Saturday March 5.