COVINGTON — In 36 career meetings, the Newton Rams had never lost to the Salem Seminoles in boys basketball.
While the Seminoles had come close on several occasions to beating the Rams — including a 68-67 overtime loss during the 2001-02 season — the thrill of victory had never been felt until Saturday night in the third annual NewRock Showcase.
Facing off against Newton Saturday night for the first time since the 2015-16 season, the Seminoles built a double-digit lead in the second half and held off a furious comeback attempt to down the Rams 58-56.
While the victory proved to be momentous given the Seminoles’ past struggles against the Rams, first-year head coach Inglis Hunter and players were unaware of the one-sided record heading into Saturday, something he thinks helped their fate.
“Not knowing that and just playing ball helped us out a great deal,” Hunter said. “It showed character from the guys. I think that if they would have known, it probably would have been in the back of their mind that they had never beaten those guys. So not knowing, we just played basketball and went out and did it.”
Six different Seminoles scored a basket in the opening quarter against the Rams. On defense, the Seminoles managed to keep everyone from scoring with the exception of senior Shawn Smith, who was responsible for all seven of Newton’s points.
Holding a 14-7 lead heading into the second quarter, neither team managed to find much offense. Both the Seminoles and Rams converted on only three shots from the field in the quarter, but two three pointers, one from Smith and one from Adrien Tucker, cut into Salem’s lead at the half 21-16.
“We didn’t think that anyone had been physical with them and played them in man,” Hunter said of his defensive plans to slow down Newton. “That worked to our advantage. I think we had six charges, so that changed the game. They had us in the bonus early.”
With each team looking for a spark on offense, the Seminoles got one in the form of junior guard Jaylen Bowen. The 6-foot-2 guard scored nine points in the quarter and helped extend the Seminoles’ lead to 40-29 heading into the fourth.
“I know he has it in him,” Hunter said of Bowen. “Jaylen is a slasher and his first step is really quick. For him to come out and get a couple of rebounds and score nine points, to me that was one of the critical moments of the game for us.”
As a team, the Seminoles went to the free throw line nine times in the quarter and converted all nine.
Two Tahron Taylor three pointers in the fourth and one Jeremiah Flournoy field goal were the only shots converted for the Seminoles in the fourth, but 10 more free throws helped secure the victory down the stretch.
Salem finished the game 25 of 36 at the free throw line including 19 of 25 in the second half.
“That was an added bonus,” Hunter said. “We hadn’t shot that good from the free throw line in the previous two games. In practice we were shooting 80-85 percent. But it hadn’t translated. It translated against Newton and that was a definite plus.”
After being held scoreless in the first half, Newton’s Caleb Byrd did his best to bring the Rams back. The senior scored 22 points in the second half and tipped in a shot with under five seconds remaining to cut the lead to two.
The Rams stole a pass on the ensuing inbounds attempt, but missed a layup that would have sent the game into overtime tied at 58.
Byrd led all scorers with 22 points while Smith finished with 14. Taylor led the Seminoles in scoring with 11 points while Emanuel Milon and Jeremiah Venson each scored 10. Jordan Howard finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
“I’ve been preaching mental toughness since I got here,” Hunter said. “I think we’ve grown, but we still have a lot more to grow. They showed themselves that they can withstand a run. Basketball is a game of runs. It’s just about withstanding it.”
Hunter gave credit to his assistant coaches Dorrian Randolph, Rodney Bradley, Maurice Love and Develous Weatherspoon after the game in helping formulate a good game plan to defeat the Rams.