FORT SMITH — Johnny Rice brought his North Little Rock team to the Coca-Cola Classic with a specific purpose in mind. He wanted his Charging Wildcats to be challenged by some of the best teams in 7A.
Saturday’s championship might have been more of a challenge than was comfortable. North Little Rock had to finish the game on a 16-8 run to put away Springdale for the title, 69-57.
KeVaughn Allen scored five straight points with just less than two minutes left to create the double-digit lead and allowed Rice and the Wildcats bench an opportunity to exhale. It was a far cry from last year’s 103-77 win against the Bulldogs in the championship game.
"They controlled the pace of the game and made it tough. That’s good for us to play a little bit of half-court basketball," Rice said.
North Little Rock didn’t lose to an in-state team last year on its way to the 7A state championship. The Wildcats were felled by Little Rock Parkview earlier this month and Rice wanted to see how his club would fare against the best of the state’s largest classification.
Springdale gave them plenty to handle for 3 1/2 quarters.
The Bulldogs managed to tie the game as late at the one-minute mark of the third quarter after a Treshawn Gause layup. An Anton Beard jumper broke the tie just before the frame ended and Springdale never came closer than two points again.
It wasn’t until Allen’s quick buckets late in the fourth, though, that the game was definitely decided.
Springdale had a chance to trim the lead to five points but Brendan Cook missed a 3-footer. Allen responded with a jab-step, step-back 3-pointer from the wing and a slick baseline runner on the following possession.
Rice finally broke a smile.
"That’s what players like him do," Rice said. "The 3 might not have been what I wanted to draw up over there on the sidelines, but him shooting the basketball, you put the ball in his hands, good things happen most of the time."
Springdale controlled the pace most of the night and Rice admitted as much afterward. The Bulldogs managed to slow North Little Rock’s high-flying transition game and play a style more-suited to a potential upset.
The Bulldogs were within three points at halftime, thanks in large part to 11 second-chance points, 10-of-12 free-throw shooting, and keeping North Little Rock off the offensive glass completely.
"We didn’t want to get in an up-and-down running match with them," Springdale coach Brad Stamps aid. "And I thought there was about a two-minute stretch there in the third quarter that we were too quick maybe on our shot selection. You can’t do that against them. At times, when we settled in and ran our stuff, I thought we did a good job."
There simply too many Wildcats who turned into horses.
Anton Beard made a 30-footer as time expired in the first half, did a little shadowboxing and let loose a smile. It was that kind of night. North Little Rock shot 7-of-9 from 3-point range and 53 percent from the field in the game. Springdale shot just 41 percent.
Beard was named tournament MVP and finished with a game-high 20 points. Allen had 15 and K.J. Hill added 17 as each were named to the All-Tournament Team. Cook and Tereke Eckwood made the team from Springdale. Eckwood’s 14 points led the Bulldogs.
Rice’s reasons for coming to the tournament were well-founded and borne out Saturday. His hope now is that it continues.
"I think the game was called a little bit different tonight than it had been," he said. "No one could get into a flow. But two good teams, it’s good to come out with a win."
Coca-Cola Classic At the Stubblefield Center, UAFS
Southside — Alex Foree
Subiaco — Chris Reed
Arkadelphia — Bryant Robinson
Bryant — C.J. Rainey
Texarkana — Jamal Ray
Northside — Tyler Triplett
Springdale — Brandon Cook
Springdale — Tereke Eckwood
North Little Rock — K.J. Hill
North Little Rock — KeVaughn Allen
North Little Rock — Anton Beard (Most Valuable Player)
North Little Rock 69, Springdale 57
North Little Rock 20 13 11 25 — 69
Springdale 16 14 12 15 — 57
North Little Rock (10-1): Beard 20, Hill 17, Allen 15, Moore 6, Eldridge 5, Gulley 2, Chibu 2, Dickerson 2.
Springdale (7-1): Eckwood 14, Owens 11, Wymer 8, Evans 8, Gause 6, Cook 4, Tutt 2.