No. 5 Newton rams Tucker out of first-place in Region 2

No. 5 Newton 58, Tucker 48

It had been 719 days since the Tucker Tigers (17-5, 7-1) had last lost a region game. A 45-42 loss to Stephenson on Feb. 7, 2014 back in Class AAAAA was Coach James Hartry’s last defeat. Last season the Tigers swept through their new home, Region 2-AAAAAA, and through the first seven region games of this season, they had started 7-0, surviving No. 5 Newton 57-56 at Tucker on Dec. 15.

Newton (19-2, 7-1), enjoying its best start since 2009-10 when the Rams opened 30-1 before falling to state champion Milton in the semifinals, entered Wednesday’s make-up game at 18-2, using last season’s state playoff run as a springboard into the 2015-16 season. As a No. 4 seed last year, the Rams knocked off defending state champion Tift County 52-49 in round one and took down No. 2 seed Dacula 58-54 in the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual state champion Wheeler in the Elite 8, 72-54.

With all of Coach Rick Rasmussen’s recent success with the Rams, one win still eluded Newton: Tucker. Last night, the Rams were finally able to rid themselves of their demons and get the monkey off their back with a 58-48 win at home to take over first-place.

“It was a big win for us tonight,” explained Rasmussen. “I thought we had a really good chance to beat them at their place and I thought we were certainly capable of playing better than we did the first time.”

They did.

Things didn’t start out so promising for the Rams however. Tucker jumped out to a 9-2 lead and looked like the more energized team, but Newton’s leading scorer, junior JD Notae, shook the Rams out of the doldrums and scored their first eight points of the game.

To end the first period, freshman sensation Ashton Hagans drove on the fastbreak and found senior Jaquan Simms open in the left corner for one of his four three-pointers on the night to give Newton a 13-11 lead heading into the second quarter.

The onslaught continued for the Rams in the second quarter as Notae’s early spurt in the first quarter ignited a 21-4 Newton run that flipped the score from a 9-2 deficit to a 23-13 advantage with 3:55 left to play in the second quarter. Tucker would pick itself off the mat and end the period on a mini 5-2 run, capped by a Tyler Payne steal and lay-in at the buzzer, cutting Newton’s halftime lead to 25-18.

The third quarter saw Tucker senior center Adonis Green score back-to-back baskets but halfway through the frame Green picked up his fourth foul. Coach Hartry elected to keep him in the game and just 15 seconds later, Green committed his fifth personal, fouling out with 2:52 remaining in the third quarter and the Tigers trailing 33-26.

While Tucker was searching for answers on how to replace Green, but more importantly slow down Newton’s guards, Jaquan Simms caught fire, canning back-to-back threes and drawing a foul on a deep ball. Simms scored eight of his 16 points in the third quarter and pushed the Rams’ lead to 38-26.

However, once again it was Tucker using a late spurt to keep the game close. The Tigers ran off four quick points stamped by Kenton Eskridge’s lay-up right before the horn to make it a 38-30 game entering the fourth quarter.

Tucker did not crawl much closer than eight points in the fourth quarter as Notae and Dante Johnson would not allow another late game disappointment. In their first meeting, the Rams blew the game at the line, connecting on just 7-of-18 attempts. Wednesday night, Newton sank 14-of-22 free throws, but more importantly 12-of-17 in the fourth quarter. Notae scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the fourth including going 5-of-6 from the stripe while Johnson netted six of his eight points in the final frame, hitting all four free throws.

After a hot start for Eskridge, scoring six first quarter points, the Rams honed in on Tucker’s playmaker and held him to four points over the next three periods.

Freshman Ashton Hagans won the war with junior Kenton Eskridge
Freshman Ashton Hagans won the war with junior Kenton Eskridge

The win was an important one for Newton, not only for region seeding, but for the overall psyche of the team, finally beating a program that has troubled them over the past two seasons. Coach Rasmussen understands there is still work to be done on Friday night as Newton hosts rival Rockdale County on senior night and the Tigers potentially looming in the region tournament.

“It feels good to get this one. I’m sure we’re going to have to play them again in the region tournament, so I’m sure that will be another war and we’re excited about it.”

My Take: Newton’s guards are the real deal. People who aren’t in the know could have given me slack for keeping the Rams in the top ten after an early 2-1 start following a loss to Henry County, but I had faith that Newton would warrant its place in the rankings. Fast forward eight weeks later and Coach Rick Rasmussen’s team is No. 5 in the poll. JD Notae has caught the eye of D-1 schools such as Kennesaw State, South Alabama and Presbyterian and all for good reason. The junior had two scoring binges. One to breathe life into the Rams and the second to close the door shut on Tucker. Notae scored the first eight points of the game to start a 21-4 run that gave Newton the lead for good and in the fourth quarter his 11 points ended all hope of a Tucker comeback. Notae showed an ability to finish inside with reverse lay ups and the coolness to sink important free throws late in the game. Freshman Ashton Hagans has some of the best court vision I’ve seen this season. It is extremely rare to see a point guard with that kind of court presence and the fact that he is only a freshman makes him a high major prospect for good reason; UGA has already offered, with Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn all showing interest. In last night’s low scoring game, he didn’t need to dazzle or show off any slick eye-catching passes like a Will Washington, but he was mature with the ball and put it in the right spots for teammates to score, something that can’t always be taught. The third man of the trio was senior Jaquan Simms. He cashed in four three-pointers and finished with 16 points. His ability to get hot from behind the arc will be invaluable come tournament time. With sophomore DeAndrae Butler missing from the lineup, Josh Tukes and Chazz Tanner stepped up and combined for four points and 10 rebounds. Dante Johnson was a key piece off the bench with eight points and nine rebounds, bringing great energy.

Xavier Johnson played well for Tucker in the absence of Adonis Green, who fouled out with four points and six rebounds. Johnson posted team-highs of 12 points and nine rebounds. Kenton Eskridge got going early on, putting his head down and finishing at the cup, but Newton made the proper adjustments to slow down the junior. The Tigers had some nice balance scoring, but weren’t able to find enough firepower to keep up with the running Rams.

Top Performers

JD Notae – 22 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals
Jaquan Simms – 16 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
Dante Johnson – 8 points, 9 rebounds
Ashton Hagans – 7 points, 1 rebound, 8 assists, 3 steals
Chazz Tanner – 4 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 1 block

Xavier Johnson – 12 points, 9 rebounds, 1 block
Kenton Eskridge – 10 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks
Amir Butcher – 7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block
Josh Vann – 6 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist
Trevon Flowers – 6 points, 1 rebound
Adonis Green – 4 points, 6 rebounds