Indiana's Newton overcomes nerves, then Oklahoma

Playing in hometown, reserve lifts Hoosiers with 19 points, 4 blocks

Final Four

March 31, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Before getting a grip on the first NCAA semifinal game last night, Indiana's Jeff Newton needed to get a hold of himself.

Newton, a reserve power forward, was playing in his hometown for the first time, in front of more than 53,000 fans, in the biggest game of his life. A nervous wreck, the Mays High School alumnus committed two turnovers in his first few minutes on the court and was yanked from the lineup.

"I just needed a quick breath," Newton said after recording career highs with 19 points and four blocked shots to lead a superlative bench effort during the Hoosiers' 73-64 victory over Oklahoma. "I was so amped up that after a couple of times up and down the court, I was winded."

After a short break, Newton looked like an old pro, propping up Indiana for much of the first half, then leading the effort on both sides of the court in the second.

Before friends and family, Newton continued his emergence from a period in the middle of the season when he wasn't much of a factor, never playing more than 19 minutes in a game during a seven-game stretch after New Year's.

Since mid-February, however, the junior has played at least 23 minutes in all but one game. He contributed a combined 26 points in Indiana's first two NCAA tournament wins, then grabbed 10 rebounds in the Hoosiers' upset of Duke in the South Regional semifinals.

"I can't say enough about how Newt has been playing this whole tournament, but especially tonight," said Indiana's star player, Jared Jeffries, whose early foul trouble opened the door for Newton's prominence. "Whenever a player can come in and focus on this, he'll have a big game, and he'll continue to do that."

Newton entered the game for Jarrad Odle with about 11:30 to go in the first half, then took on a more important role when Jeffries committed his second foul, forcing coach Mike Davis to take him out at the 11:12 mark.

Oklahoma seemed to be in good shape - the Sooners' man-to-man defense was preventing three-pointers by Indiana, and Jeffries was on the bench.

But instead of falling apart, the Hoosiers - down by eight points at the time - got the best performance of the season from Newton. The junior came back from his breather, had two three-point plays and assisted on a basket by Odle to begin a string of five straight scoring possessions that got Indiana back into the game.

"We knew he could score, but we didn't know he could score like that," Oklahoma forward Daryan Selvy said. "He played a great game. It surprised us, because we went into the game trying to stop Jeffries and the three-pointers."

Newton scored eight points in five minutes as Indiana took a seven-point edge, 57-50, with 6:14 left in the game, but he also recorded all four of his blocks in the second half, deterring shots even on second-chance opportunities.

In the last five minutes of the game, it was Newton who fouled out Oklahoma's best big man, Aaron McGhee, at the 4:40 mark, and his basket with 2:47 left in the game put Indiana ahead for good.

"That was the play, to try to go at those guys and be aggressive and try to get them into early foul trouble," Newton said.

Looking to his side, Davis said, "My man, Jeff Newton right here, was big. This was the best game I've seen Jeff play. He's been playing great for the last month and a half, but he was really big tonight."

Newton and teammate A.J. Moye are from the Atlanta area, and both wear tattoos in honor of an old friend and AAU teammate, Travis Davenport, who died of a heart disorder two years ago at the age of 19.

Newton said that Davenport, as well as the stakes of the game, served as an inspiration.

"We wanted to come out and play for him," Newton said. "He would have been right in the stands rooting for us."

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