Indiana's Newton plays the star almost nobody saw coming

Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2002

The tall, skinny kid with the tattoos made the big shots. And grabbed some of the biggest rebounds.

It just wasn't the tall, skinny tattooed kid everybody expected.

Jeff Newton came back home Saturday night, expecting that just like every other night Indiana plays basketball, he'd get lost somewhere in Jared Jeffries' shadow. Instead, the long, lithe forward that people around here remember as the locomotive who drove Mays High to a state title three years ago might have played the game of his life.

''To come back here and play like that,'' Newton said, shaking his head, ''I can't explain the way I feel right now.''

Yet he might have been the only member of the Hoosiers to be tongue-tied after Indiana upset Oklahoma 73-64, booking a place in Monday night's national championship against Maryland.

Because Newton's 19-point, six-rebound, four-block performance drew raves from just about everybody who shared the floor with him. Whether he can be effective as Maryland's big, bulky frontcourt remains to be seen. But Newton's teammates won't need convincing.

''We know what he's capable of,'' Kyle Hornsby said.

''To play that great in a game like this, in that atmosphere'' Jarrad Odle said, ''was just great.''

''Enough can't be said about how Newton has been playing,'' Jeffries said. ''Whenever a player of that caliber comes in and can focus, he's going to have a big game.''

People mention Indiana and big game in the same sentence and the name at the end is always Jeffries.

The 6-foot-10, rail-thin forward who grew up 10 minutes from Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., was the program's biggest recruiting coup of the last half-dozen years, the Big Ten freshman of the year last year and this past season, the conference player of the year.

But when Jeffries picked up a quick second foul trying to contain Oklahoma's bullish Aaron McGhee around the basket just nine minutes into the game, it forced Hoosier coach Mike Davis' hand. He looked down the bench to Newton, who stepped in, deftly worked the baseline for a pair of layups, added a free throw to each and quickly put Indiana back in the ballgame.

After just two minutes, what looked like a gamble -- swapping Newton for Jeffries -- had turned into a brilliant move. Or so it seemed until Newton and the rest of the Hoosiers went cold and Oklahoma cobbled together a 7-0 run late in the opening half for a 34-30 lead.

Excerpts from Davis' halftime speech were impossible to come by, but A.J. Moye, like Newton, a high school star from Atlanta, summed it up this way: ''Some people got fiery.''

Whether Davis was among them, the coach clearly held back some heat for the second half. Newton was one of the guys who got blistered early.

''I remember coach getting on him,'' Dane Fife recalled. ''Then all of a sudden, Newt took off.''

With the score tied 44-all eight minutes into the period, Newton played 70 seconds of the kind of basketball that had made him a local legend.

He blocked three Sooner shots on a handful of trips down the floor, grabbed a rebound off a shot he almost blocked and came back with a short jumper and layup to push the Hoosiers into a 48-46 advantage.

Three minutes later, Oklahoma's McGhee, tired of trying to push Newton around the lane and frustrated with his quick up-and-under cuts toward the basket, picked up his fourth foul and took a seat on the Sooners bench.

''We knew how good Newton was,'' Oklahoma's Hollis Price said. ''We'd seen film on him. He did a great job coming off the bench against Duke. He gave that team a lot of energy.''

It wasn't the only thing he gave the Hoosiers. When foul trouble forced Jeffries to take a seat, Newton even stepped out on the perimeter on occasion to help. He didn't have Jeffries' smooth ballhandling skills, but he showed surprising range on one possession near the 7:30 mark, when he knocked down a long jumper after a desperation pass from Tom Coverdale with the shot clock about to go off.

''My man, Jeff Newton, was big,'' Davis laughed afterward, sharing a stage with his star afterward. ''The best game I've seen him play.''

It might have been the only game McGhee had seen Newton play in person, but he probably would have agreed. Worried beforehand about defending Jeffries, he picked up his final two fouls trying to handle Newton and left the game for good with 4:40 left to play.

''You can't overlook anybody,'' McGhee said.

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson tried to drive that point home earlier in the week. Unlike most everybody else, he looked at Indiana and saw Newton as something more than Jeffries' shadow. More than a kid charged with holding down the fort while Jeffries catches a breath or on those rare occasions, like Saturday night, when foul trouble limits the Indiana star's stint on the floor.

''We do a highlight tape on key players before each game. And one of those kids,'' Sampson said, ''was Newton.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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