SUWANEE — With four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Newton’s Caleb Byrd drove to the basket and scored while getting fouled to give the Rams a 72-66 lead.
Byrd let out a giant roar prior to completing the three-point play at the free throw line and it was in that moment that he knew a spot in the Sweet 16 was all but secured.
“After that and-1, I just knew we had it,” Byrd said. “I just went ahead and let all of the emotions out and started thinking about the Sweet 16 after that.”
Behind Byrd’s game-high 31 points, the Rams overcame a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter to defeat Collins Hill 85-80.
With the win, the Rams (20-9) advance to the Sweet 16 for the sixth year in a row.
“I’m just glad the season isn’t over with,” said Newton head coach Charlemagne Gibbons, who earned his first career playoff win as a Ram Thursday night. “I had plans for practice tomorrow, so I would have hated for that not to happen.
“It’s exciting. I wanted to be at Newton. It’s been a great tradition and we just want to carry it on and continue to raise the level. I’m super excited about our first win, but hopefully it won’t be our last one this season.”
The Rams played arguably one of, if not their best first quarter of the season against Collins Hill, out-scoring the Eagles 25-11. As a team, the Rams shot 9 of 14 from the field and knocked down five three-pointers.
Looking to run away with the victory early, the Rams were unable to do so.
With Newton leading by nine with just over three minutes left in the first half, Collins Hill used a 10-2 run to draw to within one point on a Travis Hunter three-pointer. The Rams were able to close out the final 41 seconds of the first half with four points to take a 41-36 lead into the break.
Newton’s first basket of the third quarter didn’t come until the 4:19 mark. By that time, the Eagles had grabbed its first lead of the game and had extended it to six points, 47-41 before T.J. Clark ended the scoreless drought with a basket for the Rams.
After trimming the Eagles’ lead to two points following a Byrd dunk, the Eagles were able to build their lead back out to a game-high 10 points when Jabiri Smith buried a three-pointer with 55 seconds remaining in the quarter.
That’s when the game changed in favor of the Rams.
Newton ended the final 47 seconds of the third quarter out-scoring the Eagles 6-0 and needed only 1:30 into the fourth to knot the game at 63 when J.D. Hall drilled a midrange jumper.
Trailing the Eagles 66-65, freshman Qua Brown gave the Rams the lead for good with a tip-in with 4:54 remaining before Byrd scored the next six points of the game.
Senior Max Calloway followed with a corner three-pointer to give Newton a 10-point lead, capping what was a 26-6 run since the Eagles led by 10 late in the third quarter.
The Rams were able to ice the game down the stretch with free throws, handing the Eagles a disappointing end to their season after finishing as a No. 2 seed out of Region 6.
Gibbons said after the game that their 10-point deficit late in the third quarter never phased his team down the stretch.
“We’ve been playing against monsters all year long,” Gibbons said. “So being down 10, we brought the guys in the huddle and talked to them about being down to some of the best teams in the country. We told them we were going to do the same thing here.”
Brown (12 points) and Shawn Smith (11 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) joined Byrd in double figures. Smith paced the Eagles with 24 points while Hunter scored 15 and Glover scored 14.