The Rams’ state playoff run stopped on a cold Thursday night at Wheeler High School, with a large number of Newton fans tucked inside Wheeler’s gym hoping to see the Newton boys basketball team pull of yet another upset. Three days later and the buzz has died, but the players and head coach Rick Rasmussen will always know how it all came together.
Newton pretty much backed into the playoffs this year. After a dominant win (68-43) against a winless Alcovy team, the Rams were beaten by Rockdale (52-47) for the third time this season and then they lost to Lovejoy (50-45) in the third place game of the Region 2-AAAAAA tournament.
“I feel like we didn’t shoot the ball well in the region tournament and nothing went our way. We had some tough calls and I felt like we weren’t where we need it to be as a team and then things didn’t go our way. I think giving us a four-seed, I think we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t think we’re a typical four-seed. I think we’re deceptively talented and I think that maybe early on in the playoffs, I think we surprised Tift County. I think we did get a little bit of a chip on our shoulder that nobody expected us to be able to beat Tift and we played with a little ‘nothing to lose’ swagger.”
Tift felt that swagger and saw the talent Newton had in the Rams 52-49 victory over Tift. After the win. Rasmussen says although the Tift fans were in shock they treated Newton with nothing but respect.
“In the locker room after Tift and in the waning moments of the game, it was sort of a surreal feeling. Even though we had a pretty good sized lead for a large portion of that game we were never comfortable because we knew they could come back, and of course they did and we held on by three. [The win gave us] a real sense of accomplishment and confidence. It just felt really special to leave the court when everybody was hugging and jumping on each other on the sideline after the game,” Rasmussen said.
“Just going into the locker room and seeing the enthusiasm of the kids and all the hard work and off-season, and all those things paying off. Just to see the joy in the locker room was very rewarding and gratifying,” he added. “We got a ton of compliments from the people at Tift when we left. A lot of parents, boosters and fans, although they were shocked, they were very congratulatory because they knew something special had occurred. We got a lot of compliments, including the Tift coach. He told me that was the best coaching job he’d seen the entire season and I thought he was really first class and professional about it.”
Rasmussen says that he and the Tift coach are good friends, and that he was amazed by the way Newton played that night. The losses against Rockdale and Lovejoy, by a combined 10 points, really gave Newton an edge.
You could see the confidence in Newton before they left to play Tift. It was like they were the No. 1 seed and Tift was coming to play them – although on the outside that confidence seemed useless, in hindsight it was just perfect. Talking to Newton D.J. Hill before the Rams got on the bus, I asked him if Newton would win and he responded with a quick “of course.”
“I think the kids have gotten really focused and they’ve really sacrificed,” Rasmussen said. “They’ve really accepted their roles here down the stretch. They’ve really realized that for us to be successful we have to play our game and everybody has to sacrifice. The attitudes of the kids are the best they’ve been all season right now and its made a huge difference.”
You’d think Newton would have accomplished enough with the win over Tift, but Dacula soon found out that the Rams were for real.
“To beat Dacula was kind of proof that the upset wasn’t a fluke, that we were a team to be reckoned with. I think it validated [the win against Tift,” Rasmussen said. “To see our kids play with the same level of confidence and to make timely shots, continue to believe in each other and work extremely hard defensively. Getting the loose balls and taking charges, and doing the things that it takes to beat a team in a playoff atmosphere. Again, great joy in the locker room and on the bus and just a feeling of pride. As you said we’ve been there before, but it feels really good to be back.”
Newton’s system/style of play comes with its warts – its slow and not necessarily fun to watch – but it also comes with winning. Fundamentals and discipline are the two concepts that most represent what it means to play the ‘Newton way.’ Rasmussen says those very same concepts were a big part of every Newton team that made a deep playoff run.
“It’s unique in that we’re not playing a brand of basketball that maybe everybody wants to play. It’s hard to get kids – in this day and age – to buy in to winning is more important than playing for show,” Rasmussen said. “I think our kids have been able to say, ‘Hey we want to be the best team we can be and what’s it gonna take to get there and let’s get together on the gameplan. Let’s do our best as a team.’”