Rams top Dogs
Henry, Smith carry Newton past Rockdale 55-51 in overtime
Rockdale may have four Division 1 prospects, including Darion Clark and University of Tennessee-bound Kevin Ware, and have the talent to make a serious run at a Class AAAA state title. But the Bulldogs realized Wednesday, as has every other team that's faced Newton over the past three years, that they don't have Derrick Henry.
Henry made clutch play after clutch play en route to a game-high 20 points, Willie Smith added a career-high 19 and the No. 6 (Class AAAAA) Rams stunned the No. 8 (Class AAAA) Bulldogs 55-51 in overtime.
"We made big plays," Henry said. "Willie stepped up and we gave it all we had. There was stuff going around on Facebook and people from Rockdale were saying they (Bulldogs) were going to beat us by 30. As soon as we heard that, that was the fuel we needed. We felt they couldn't beat us and we came out and showed it."
Henry's left-handed la- yup across the lane with 24 seconds left in the fourth tied the game at 48. After Rockdale (12-5) missed a chance to win it in regulation, Newton (12-2) outscored the Bulldogs 7-3 in overtime.
"That was a fun game," Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. "I knew we'd
have to battle for all four quarters. It turned out we had to battle for four and half of another one. I thought we played well for really the whole game."
The Rams went 5 of 6 from the free throw line in overtime while Rockdale made just 1 of 4. Alex Ordu hit two free throws to put the Rams up 50-48 before Clark answered with a bucket to tie the game at 50.
Again Henry had the answer. He broke the tie with a tough layup with 1:18 left and Stephen Croone hit two free throws to put the Rams up 54-50 with 23 seconds to go.
"He's (Henry) been a clutch player for three years," Rasmussen said. "I've never seen him miss a free throw we had to have. He's a clutch player. He wants it. He wanted it more than they (Bulldogs) did. That's the bottom line."
Rockdale missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation and scored just the one bucket in overtime.
"I though it was big to take the lead first in overtime," Rasmussen said. "You want to take the lead and get momentum and make them play from behind. I though scoring first was big in the overtime."
Newton held the Bulldogs to a season low for points and in the 50s for just the third time this year. Rockdale came in averaging 70 points per game. Clark finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds while Ware had 12 points and six assists. CJ Wilson chipped in with eight points.
Ware and Clark started the game showcasing Rockdale's high-octane offense when the future Volunteer hit the 6-foot-7 forward in transition for a thunderous dunk to give the Bulldogs an early 7-6 lead. But the unfazed Rams responded to take the lead on Smith's two free throws and each team settled in.
"One of the things we talked about was getting back in transition and not letting them run," Rasmussen said. "We did a good job of that all night. We couldn't have a bad quarter defensively in particular. We stuck to our game plan really the whole time."
Neither team let the other stray too far away. Rockdale led 13-12 at the end of the first but the Rams rallied to take a 26-22 lead at halftime. The Rams led by as many as seven in the second before Charles Moore drained a three at the end of the period to pull the Bulldogs to within four.
"I feel like we came out hard," Henry said. "The last few games we haven't played maybe as hard or well as we can. But I believe the key to this game was we came out decent enough to stay in the game and when we took the lead, we basically kept it through the rest of the game."
As the game wore on, Newton adjusted to Rockdale's inside game and took other scoring options Deshaun Sunderhaus and Bernard Thompson out of the game.
Meanwhile, Henry abandoned his outside game and attacked Rockdale's interior. Undaunted, he scored the majority of his points off the dribble against Rockdale's superior height.
"I wanted to show the team that we could get in there and score inside," Henry said. "I shot a few pull-ups early in the game but I went to the penetration to show the team that we could get inside and that we didn't have to settle for outside shots because of their length and athleticism."
One player who got the message was Smith. While Henry's outburst was just the latest in the long list of big games over his career at Newton , Rockdale never saw Smith's performance coming. Giving up four inches and close to 30 pounds to Clark, Smith played Rockdale's bigmen tough thanks in large part to his quickness.
"Willie's an athlete. They have a lot of athletes and we have a few but Willie's an athlete and he came to play," Rasmussen said. "He's a senior and knew this was going to be a fun game and one you would remember. He wanted to make some memories and I thought he did a great job."
When Smith wasn't banging shoulders with Clark and company inside, he was showcasing his shooting touch. He drained two 3-pointers in the first half and was a perfect 4 of 4 from the free throw line in the first half.
"We were trying to temper those (3-point shots) but he was playing well and playing with confidence and he had done several things that were good so he had the confidence to take those shots," Rasmussen said. "When you're playing well, a smart coach is going to let you play. That was Willie's best game of the season."
Rockdale found itself caught between style and substance on several occasions and they paid for it. Ware dribbled the ball off his foot while trying to time his jump for a dunk on a breakaway and Clark missed an easy putback when he tried to flush it off a miss. Sunderhaus also missed an easy putback after a failed dunk attempt and each time the Rams made them pay.
In contrast, Newton stayed within itself and Rockdale had no answer for Henry.
"The bottom line is, he (Henry) may not be the 6foot-5 high-flying athlete that someone thinks is a high major player but I'll take him over any of those," Rasmussen said. "He's so productive, it doesn't matter. He has tons of heart — tons of guts and he uses his Godgiven ability well. You can't stop him."
Ware had a relatively quiet night for Rockdale but did hit what would have been the game-winner for the Bulldogs inside of a minute to play in regulation.
Henry answered with an off-balance lefty scoop just over the outstretched arms of Clark though and Newton's defense was able to hold firm at the end.
"He's been a clutch player for three years," Rasmussen said. "I've never seen him miss a free throw we had to have. He's a clutch player. He wants it. He wanted it more than they (Bulldogs) did. That's the bottom line."
The only other time Henry and Ware faced each other was at the junior all-star game last year in Savannah. Ware's southern team got the better of Henry's northern brethren.
Rockdale gets a chance at redemption next Saturday at home.
"I love competition," Henry said. "I love to play the teams that are supposed to be at the top and have top players. I'm a competitor. If you put a high-ranked team or highly rated player in front of me, somehow I find in me to dig down and give even more and I was able to do that tonight."
Clutch down the stretch: Derrick Henry (15) scores the game-tying basket on Rockdale's Darion Clark during the Rams' 55-51 overtime win Wednesday.