SNELLVILLE -- Without their star player on the court, Rockdale County still found a way to take a 22-21 lead into halftime over Newton in the first round of the Region 8-AAAAAAA tournament Wednesday night.
With leading scorer Kevin Sesberry out serving a one-game suspension, the Bulldogs eventually succumbed to the Rams in the second half behind a strong performance from Caleb Byrd, who helped will Newton to a hard-fought 66-57 win.
Newton first-year head coach Charlemagne Gibbons expected a tough game from the Bulldogs, a team that played his Rams close in both regular-season meetings.
“Those are the toughest games because (Rockdale) didn’t have anything to lose,” Gibbons said. “Those are dangerous teams in that situation because they’re going to let it fly free. I have to give coach (Tyrone) King and his crew credit. They play extremely hard and I thought they played extremely hard again today. We just found a way to pull it out.”
A quiet first half for Byrd turned into a second-half explosion for the standout senior. Byrd scored 20 points in the second half to finish his night with a game-high 26. Senior Shawn Smith chipped in with 12, as did sophomore TJ Clark.
Newton held a slim 11-10 lead over the Bulldogs at the end of the first quarter and remained locked in a tight battle for the entire second quarter.
With the game tied 18-all following a Jhiem McDonald three-pointer, Newton freshman Jakai Newton gave the Rams the lead back with a three-pointer of his own.
In the closing seconds of the second quarter, Rockdale sophomore Keishaun Whitner converted an and-1 to trip the Newton lead to one, 21-20. After missing the free throw, Whitner snatched the offensive rebound and laid it home to give the Rams a 22-21 halftime lead.
The Bulldogs held a 30-28 lead with under six minutes remaining in the third quarter when Elijah Jefferson converted an and-1. From that point on, however, the Rams built a lead that proved too much in the end for the Bulldogs.
Newton out-scored Rockdale 17-7 over the final 5:10 of the third quarter and took a 45-37 lead into the fourth quarter.
“I was very pleased,” King said of the first half. “We had a good feeling about this game. Even in the second half, there was just one stretch where we couldn’t put the ball in the basket. I’m really proud of the boys tonight, especially the younger kids coming out and proving that even though Kevin wasn’t there, we’re still going to play our hardest.”
A Jordon Marshall three-pointer extended the Rams’ lead to 11 with 5:50 remaining in the fourth, but the Bulldogs continued to show a fight. Rockdale trimmed the deficit to eight points with under three minutes remaining, but were unable to cut into it any further until under a minute remaining on the clock.
Gibbons liked the way his team played in the second half much more than that of their first-half performance.
“In the second half, we just got to possess the ball more,” Gibbons said. “we found a lineup and an energetic group that gave us a chance to play with some energy and move the ball a little bit quicker.”
With the win, the Rams will gear up for a semifinal showdown with the No. 1 ranked team in the state, Grayson. The Rams are the only team to defeat Grayson this season, but lost in the rematch big, 86-39.
“The one thing that I do know is they will be well prepared and we will be well prepared,” Gibbons said of the matchup. “The series is 1-1 right now. We got our tails kicked the last time, so hopefully the next two days we will prepare and try to make a couple adjustments and come out and fight.”
As for the Bulldogs, their season comes to a close with an 8-18 record. While King was disappointed with the loss, he said he was proud of the effort.
“It speaks a lot for this program,” King said. “I think the button clicked for a couple kids. Elijah played a heck of a game. Hopefully he can carry that on and keep that intensity. Keishaun was really composed today and played a good game. I’m looking forward to next season. I hate to be talking about next season right now, but I think we have some key pieces.”
Jefferson led the way for the Bulldogs with 19 points while Whitner chipped in with 14 and McDonald chipped in with 13.