DES MOINES, Ia. — The town of Newton is 35 miles from Des Moines. Iowa City West sits 115 miles away.
The Newton boys’ basketball team was in the state tournament for the first time since 1992. Iowa City West qualified for the seventh straight year.
The result: A sea of red and black, completely filling one side of Wells Fargo Arena cheering against a mighty little squadron of Trojans fans. In what was essentially a road quarterfinal, No. 1 West outscored the unranked Cardinals 14-6 in the final frame to eke out a 57-51 win and advance to Friday’s semifinal round.
“I hope that the next two games that we play aren’t shaky like that,” said Devontae Lane, who scored five of his 18 in the fourth quarter. “But I think it was good for the guys who haven’t played here a lot because it really relaxes them and gets the nerves out and gets all the jitters out.”
Nerves were aplenty early on.
Newton’s top two scorers — Connor Gholson and Garrett Sturtz — combined for 38 of the team’s 45 points through three quarters. Most came on backdoor cuts or give-and-go plays that exploited West’s aggressive on-ball defense.
The Cardinals also turned it over just six times through three, compared with West’s nine.
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Fast forward to the fourth quarter, which West entered down 45-43.
West held Newton scoreless for the first 5 minutes, 50 seconds. Connor McCaffery was a man possessed, hounding Gholson on every attempted back-cut, around every screen. He held Gholson, Class 4A’s eighth-best scorer, without a bucket until 43 seconds remained.
Meanwhile, the Trojans committed only one turnover and forced the Cardinals into four.
“Here’s the deal: If you lose, you’re done,” West head coach Steve Bergman said. “And if you win, you get a chance to play Friday and Saturday. We’re getting kind of used to doing that.
“I think it was good that we got tested. Sometimes, when the game’s over in the middle of the third quarter you don’t get out of those games like we got out of that game right there.”
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The day obviously didn’t end how Newton wanted. It began like something out of a Hollywood script, though.
The team bus went on a parade route through town after breakfast before heading to Des Moines. Citizens of Newton lined the streets, Cardinals coach Bill Liley said.
Little kids holding signs. Grown men wiping tears from their eyes. This game was bigger than big. And it sure seemed like all of Newton was inside Wells Fargo Arena.
“It meant everything,” Liley said of the crowd. “The town of Newton became excited about basketball. And for that to happen, and the way that it happened, is truly a special feeling.”
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The Cardinals held control for most of this game until the final quarter. They didn’t flinch against the 4A juggernaut.
“(Liley) just kept telling us that we could do this,” Gholson said, “and that we weren’t playing against the front of the jersey; we’re playing against a bunch of basketball players, just like us.”
Gholson led Newton with 24 points and Sturtz added 20.
McCaffery and Lane led West with 18 apiece. Izaya Ono-Fullard scored seven and Hakeem Odunsi netted six in 20 big minutes off the bench, with Patrick McCaffery in foul trouble most of the day.
IC West (57) – Lane 18, Connor McCaffery 18, Ono-Fullard 7, Odunsi 6, Sims 4, Patrick McCaffery 3, Disterhoft 1. Also played – Flitz. Totals – 16, 19/28.
Newton (51) – Gholson 24, Sturtz 20, Vanderlaan 5, Maher 2. Also played – Ventling, Graham, Coley. Totals – 20, 7/10.
IC West…19 9 15 14 – 57
Newton…14 16 15 6 – 51
3-point field goals – ICW 6: Lane 2, Connor McCaffery 2, Ono-Fullard 2. N 4: Gholson 3, Vanderlaan 1. Fouls – ICW 12. N 20. Fouled out – ICW: Patrick McCaffery. N: Ventling, Maher.
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.