Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
In a long line of great Saints guards, Ja’Quan Newton stands at the top.
If there were any doubters heading into the Palestra for last night’s Catholic League championship clash between Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic, Newton’s performance silenced them.
The 6-foot-3 guard, headed to Miami (Fl.) in just a matter of months, scored 23 points to lead his team to its fourth PCL title while he’s been there, and its sixth in a row overall. He’s started for the Saints since his freshman year.
And it wasn’t just that he led all players in scoring in the biggest high school game in the city for the third year in a row. It was how and when he did it.
With Neumann-Goretti trailing Roman by five midway through the third, a tough 3-point play and a normal 3-pointer helped his squad go on a 11-3 run to take a three-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Six straight Newton points and then a feed to Tony Toplyn for a dunk gave the Saints their largest lead at 46-37, and even with three minutes remaining it was obvious what the result would be.
As Neumann-Goretti head coach Carl Arrigale noted afterwards, “there was nothing he was going to do in his power not to try to win this game.”
This came a year after he scored 27 points in the championship game against St. Joseph’s Prep. As a sophomore, he scored 21 in the championship game, also against the Prep.
“I had to turn it up,” Newton said. “I had to turn up for my team to win and that’s what I did.
“Big time players make big-time plays, so when it’s that time for me, or a big-time player to contribute for the team in the fourth quarter, they do it, so that’s what I go do.”
The one championship game where Newton didn’t lead everybody in scoring was as a freshman back in 2011, when all he did was score 13 points against Archbishop Carroll. In the sold-out Palestra, on the biggest court of his career, Newton just stepped up and did what his team needed him to.
Even as a freshman, his impact on the team’s then-third straight PCL championship was undeniable.
“He was never afraid,” Arrigale. “He was actually the reason he won that year because the way the team was made up, I said if I could just get a fifth starter, I’ve got the two perfect guys to do what I wanted to do off the bench. To their credit, they were okay with a freshman starting, because he was good enough and he just made that whole year flow.”
Oh yes, he’s a big-time player. That much was obvious to anybody who’s been paying attention to high school basketball in this city over the last four years.
His coach was willing to go a few steps beyond that.
“He’s one of the greatest players the city’s ever seen,” Arrigale said. “He’s the best playoff player, by far, I don’t care, he’s the best playoff player, he’s the all-time leading playoff scorer, before we’re done our run he’s going to be the all-time leading scorer in the league.”
There’s really only one blemish on the entire resumé–a loss to Donegal in last year’s PIAA Class AAA quarterfinals, ending the Saints’ run at a third consecutive state title and the chance for Newton to go his entire high school career without losing a single playoff game. Other than that, it’s tough to find a flaw.
Indeed, the numbers are starting to prove Arrigale’s claim. Newton’s 1,839 points are a Neumann-Goretti record, and he’s currently 12th in the city’s illustrious high school hoops history in total career points. With the AAA city championship game and as many as five state playoff games remaining, Monsignor Bonner star Jeff Jones’ Catholic League-record 1,923 points is well within reach.
As the leading scorer in Saints history, Newton has already surpassed a few very impressive names. Antonio “Scoop” Jardine (1,299 points), who went on to play at Syracuse. Tony Chennault, who scored 1,610 points before heading to Villanova via Wake Forest. Earl Pettis (1,045), who played at Rutgers and La Salle, as well as his Explorer teammate Tyreek Duren. Former record-holder Steve Benton, who graduated back in 1985, went on to Boston College.
In fact, those same great players wearing that same uniform have had a direct effect on Newton’s career.
“Every time I put on this jersey, I know it’s a legacy and I’ve got to keep it going,” Newton said. “So every time I go out there, I play like it’s my last.”
Newton’s sense of history must carry over to the Palestra. After all, how else to explain his performances there?
“I play my best basketball at Penn, I should have gone to Penn,” he said with a laugh. “This is the best building to play in, in Philadelphia.
“Every time I came to this situation, at the Palestra, we won. My whole four years. So that’s a great accomplishment.”
The player who knows Newton better than any other is his backcourt mate Troy Harper, a four-year varsity player himself for the Saints, and a Division I signee headed to Campbell University next year.
Harper and Newton go back well beyond their years at Neumann-Goretti, getting to know each other for the first time as sixth graders, playing CYO and AAU ball together growing up as well. By the time they were freshmen in high school, Harper knew that his teammate had a chance to become one of the all-time greats.
“He’s not scared of nothing, he wants to take the big shot,” he said. “He’s got a big heart, he’s not scared of nobody. He misses a shot, he’s taking the next shot, he doesn’t care.”
Like a number of alums who still play in and around Philadelphia, Duren–now entering the final few weeks of a stellar collegiate career at Broad and Olney–comes to see his alma mater fairly often. He was there on Monday night, as was former Saint Joseph’s & Binghamton guard D.J. Rivera, another N-G alum and 1000-point scorer as a Saint.
And though he’s played after, with and against some of the top players around, Duren couldn’t help but be impressed by the career that Newton has had at the South Philadelphia institution.
“I think it’s real big, especially when you look back and see all the big names, all the great players that came out of here. For him to be the leading scorer, I think that’s the biggest accomplishment you can get, so I’m proud of him,” he said. “You always wish you got a guy like that. I wouldn’t have minded another scorer on our team.”
Roman Catholic would make a late push, getting back within three points with 14.7 seconds remaining. Fittingly, it was Newton who ended up at the free throw line with exactly 10 ticks on the clock and a final chance to extinguish any flickering Cahillite hopes.
The Saints won by five. Do the math.
“He wasn’t going to miss them,” Arrigale said.
But they’re certainly going to miss him.