Though you wouldn't know it by their record, the Newton Rams (12-5, 5-3 Region 2-AAAAA) have had a trying season so far. Of their five losses, four have been by two points or less including three as time expired. But the Rams looked like a team ready to go on a roll after Friday's 67-55 win over M.L. King.
Shane Henry scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and was one of four Rams in double figures. More impressively, Henry had 10 blocks en route to his first-career triple-double and anchored a defense that held the Lions to 16 points in the first half.
"He (Henry) came to play," Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. "The first time we played them he had a double-double. He had a good game against Westlake the other night so he's been getting up for the region games. It was an especially good bounce back after scoring just two the other night."
Jalen Glover, thrust into the starting lineup in the fifth game of the season, scored a career-high 15 points on the strength of three 3-pointers and a perfect 4-for-4 night from the free throw line.
"With Jalen in the lineup it gives teams another person they have to guard," Rasmussen said. "When we played them the first time, we didn't play Jalen so they didn't know who he was so he probably surprised them. They'll probably be in his grill if we play them again."
After stumbling to a 1-3 start, the Rams are 11-2 with Glover as a starter. His presence in the starting lineup has provided an offensive spark and given the Rams a third scoring option. He was especially effective in the second half. Glover scored 13 of his points and buried all of his threes in the final two quarters and helped the Rams build a 21-point lead early in the fourth.
"He came up big in the third quarter when (M.L. King) went on a run. He popped those threes and that really helped us," Rasmussen said.
Leading scorer Stephen Croone added 13 while Justin Thompson had 12 and the Rams buried eight shots from beyond the 3-point line as a team.
"We came up with the loose balls and we swung the ball around the perimeter on offense and took good shots," Rasmussen said. "I thought we attacked the basket well. Coupled with good defense in the first three quarters, I thought we had a good offensive night as well."
Newton outscored the Lions in each of the first three quarters and increased a 10-point lead to 18 entering the fourth before ML King scored 24 in the final period.
"It was a good offensive game overall," Rasmussen said. "Really only in the last three or four minutes did we get a little sloppy. I think that was the reality that we aren't 20 points better than the fifth-ranked team in the state."
In a wide-open region, the Rams kept pace with the front-runners.
Westlake is atop the standings at 9-0 but the next three teams are separated by just one game. More importantly, Newton took the second game with the Lions after losing to them the first time around.
"I guarantee if we get them in the region tournament it will be a dogfight up to the final buzzer," Rasmussen said. "We got them the second time around and we feel like the second time we play somebody is the most important for momentum toward the region tournament. That's what we've been preaching the last three years."
The Rams suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Westlake two weeks ago and squandered a 12-point, second-half lead in a two-point loss to M.L. King the first time the two teams met back in December. But that seems like a long time ago after Friday's win in which the offense was clicking and the defense resembled the ones that held teams to a league low for points scored the past two seasons.
"The first loss was tough. We had a 12-point lead in the second quarter and let it get away from us. I knew no lead was safe even when we were up 20," Rasmussen said. "I thought the difference was we only had two turnovers in the first half and we only gave up 16 points. We shot the ball well so you had us playing well on offense and then we played them tough defensively and we did a much better job rebounding. It was a Newton first half defensively."
About the only thing Newton didn't do well Friday was shoot free throws. Normally a solid free throw-shooting team, the Rams shot a paltry 11-for-21 from the stripe. It didn't hurt them though as the Lions never got it closer than 13 in the second half before winning by 12.
"Free throws are crucial. We have to make them," Rasmussen said. "I think maybe the score had a little bit to do with that and we may have relaxed a little bit."
At the midpoint of the region schedule and with the region tournament looming less than a month away, Newton will look to build some momentum heading down the stretch and improve its position before trying to capture the school's third straight region championship.
Friday's game wasn't a bad way to start.
"I feel like nobody in the region wants to play us," Rasmussen said. "They (M.L. King) came in here ranked fifth in the state and we played with a lot of energy so it was a good win for us. I feel like we are playing as well as anybody in the region right now."