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IU's Jeff Newton, superstar

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2002


ATLANTA -- Games like this are reserved for stars. Nights like this are reserved for dreams.

ATLANTA -- Games like this are reserved for stars. Nights like this are reserved for dreams.

What, then, is a guy named Jeff Newton doing taking over them both?

One minute he was just another guy, destined to be that face in the team picture you cannot quite remember. The next he was the legend who strapped Indiana across his back and carried the Hoosiers to the national final. Introducing Jeff Newton. That was what Saturday's semifinal of the NCAA Tournament was all about, really. It was the night a quiet, mystifying forward for the Hoosiers introduced himself to the state of Oklahoma and gave hope to every player who sits on every bench of every team.

Jeff Newton. Who?

In perhaps the finest understudy role in the history of college basketball, Newton came off the bench to save Indiana's bacon Saturday. In 23 minutes, Newton scored 19, had 6 rebounds, blocked 4 shots, had 2 steals, fouled out Godzilla and was seen to have a smile on his face. Which of those statistics were the more unbelievable will be debated for days.

The blossoming of Newton was an amazing sight. One minute he was just another soldier and the next he was Braveheart, leading the attack. He had a night that Jared Jeffries, the team's star, would have been proud of. Heck, he had a night that Isiah Thomas or Scottie May would have been proud of.

Because of it, the Hoosiers pulled yet another staggering upset to advance to Monday night's final against Maryland. Despite Jeffries' eight points, despite Tom Coverdale's collapse in the final minutes, despite Oklahoma's defensive pressure, the Hoosiers managed to win.

For the record, Newton says you're welcome.

How do you explain this? How do you diagram it when the unrecognizable becomes the unstoppable? How do you tell the story when an extra becomes a star?

"You can't explain it," teammate Dane Fife said. "Newt even hit a jump shot. That's how hard it is to explain it."

It has always been difficult to explain Newton, a 6-9 riddle from Mays High, some 5 miles from the Georgia Dome in College Park. He is the unemotional, unflappable, unreadable guy in the locker room.

"He's the biggest mystery in the locker room," Fife said. "He's the eighth wonder of the world. He's Stonehenge. You don't know where it came from. He's Area 51.

"You just never know what he's thinking. But Coach (Mike) Davis has done a good job turning him into an outstanding basketball player the last few weeks. That's good, because I still think he has a chance to be a professional basketball player."

This is what happens when life exceeds your dreams. Push him, and Newton admits that he has done the old last-shot-for-the-national-championship type of dreaming. "You can do whatever you want in your dreams," he said.

Dreaming is one thing. This was something else. The dreams of the everyday guy off the bench are a couple of key baskets, a couple of key rebounds and whatever scraps you can carry. You don't dream of stardom, for goodness sakes.

You don't dream of coming home on a team that has somehow caught fire. You don't dream of going onto the court, so excited ("amped up," in Newton's words) that you make a couple of silly mistakes and get jerked out of the game. You don't dream of Davis yelling at you to sit down and to let him know when you're ready to go back in. You don't dream of waiting two seconds and pronouncing yourself ready.

And most of all, you do not dream of what happened afterward. Newton had three surges. When Oklahoma led 17-9 and threatened a blowout, his two 3-pointers made it a game again. When the score was tied at 44 he scored eight of his team's next 13 and drew the fifth foul against Aaron "Godzilla" McGhee. And when the Sooners found themselves tied at 60 with 3:24 to go Newton still had five points, three rebounds and a blocked shot in him.

"I knew if I played bad, my brothers and my boys were going to let me hear about it," Newton said. "They would have said "Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do that?' "

Instead, they will talk of Newton's composure, of how he claimed the night as his own. Maybe they'll talk of the old days, when Newton played with them. Maybe they will talk about Travis Davenport.

There is a large tattoo on Newton's left biceps. It shows a player dunking the ball. No. 40. It has "Trap" on it. There are flames.

Travis Davenport used to play AAU basketball with Newton and Indiana teammate A.J. Moye. He was a big, physical player, 6-8 and 250 pounds but kind enough that he once gave Moye the sneakers off his feet so Moye could play. Davenport died at 19 of heart problems, just after being told he would not be able to continue to play.

"He'd have been here," Newton said, grinning. "He'd have a team of his own, too. But he'd have been there yelling."

If Davenport had been, he'd have seen something. He'd have seen a backup singer grab the microphone and turn into a star. He'd have seen a basketball player no one had ever heard do something many will never forget.

He would have seen Jeff Newton's night. It was somewhere beyond imagination, somewhere on the other side of dreams.

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