North Little Rock completed a near-perfect season Saturday afternoon with a 64-52 win over the Fayetteville Bulldogs to take home the Class 7A state championship.
The Charging Wildcats finished 28-1 this season, winning their first championship since 1971. Their only loss this year came to Charleston, Mo. while playing in a Missouri tournament.
"It feels really good to get over the hump," said North Little Rock coach Johnny Rice. "Teams can’t key on any one player or really even scout what we do. There’s really not a drawn up play for those three guys, I just want to keep them moving and getting open."
Those three guys are sophomore Kevaughn Allen and seniors Dayshawn Watkins and Thomas Alexander. Alexander and Allen each scored 17 points, while Watkins added 16 points.
Fayetteville never really went away during the game, despite never leading during the first three quarters. The Bulldogs outscored North Little Rock 10-4 to begin the fourth quarter, taking a 47-46 lead after back-to-back buckets by 6’10 Tyler McCullough with 5:53 left to play.
That lead change prompted a quick timeout by Rice.
"When we got down one, they were getting to us," said Rice. "We weren’t playing with a purpose on offense. We got more aggressive, got more purpose and started getting to the line."
Watkins really turned up the aggressiveness on his part, driving into the lane and scoring the next two baskets for the Wildcats. One was a floater over McCullough, who is almost a foot taller than the Wildcat senior.
"With the atmosphere here and the importance of this game, that’s about as good as Dayshawn has played," said Rice. "I’ve seen him do some incredible things, but that fourth quarter was huge."
After a free throw by the Bulldogs making the score 50-48, Allen made a dunk from the baseline and an alley-oop dunk with the assist from Watkins.
Defensively, the Wildcats turned it up to another level after the timeout as well. The Bulldogs made one free throw and one layup over a five-minute stretch.
Part of that effort came from senior Gary Vines, who pulled down four of his game-high 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter.
A guard, Vines fought through the trees under the basket to grab an offensive rebound with 1:37 remaining in the game. Vines was fouled going back up, then made both free throws to put North Little Rock on top 58-50.
"Gary rebounds with everything he has," said Rice. "He is all heart, all the time. Every rebound, every loose ball, he’s the one who you know will be fighting for it. We’re really going to miss him. You can’t replace something like that."
North Little Rock led 27-23 at halftime and 42-37 after three quarters. The Charging Wildcats led 42-33 late in the third, but Fayetteville scored four points over the final 11 seconds.
"I got the job in July on an interim basis, so we’ll see what happens with that," Rice said. "This is the job I’ve always wanted. I played here and that makes it extra special. Walking off the court, coach Alexander and coach Ingram were two of the first to meet me. Coach Alexander had tears in his eyes. I coached for those guys as an assistant. I played for coach Ingram. There were so many former players here. This was such a special night for North Little Rock."