For North Little Rock Coach Johnny Rice, the Charging Wildcats’ journey to the 7A state championship was nothing like the journey with his teams that won three consecutive titles.

All three of those teams had high-level division I recruits and were expected to go far in the tournament. This year’s Wildcat team was a mix of seniors and sophomores and wasn’t expected to do much in the 7A this year.

However, they ended up with a magical year after making it title game and suffering a heartbreaking 50-49 loss to Fort Smith Northside last Saturday at Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs.

“I’m just as proud of them as I am of the three teams that won,” Rice said. “No one expected us to do anything. I’m disappointed for the kids that we had our shot and came up short.”

What was different for Rice is that the Wildcats didn’t have the elite superstar like previous teams did in Kevaughn Allen, now an All-SEC guard at Florida and Anton Beard, now at Arkansas. He regularly played nine guys and got to do more tutoring.

“I’ve never played nine on a regular basis,” Rice said. “We had no team chemistry issues. The guys accepted their roles and played together. They wanted to be coached and took instructions and constructive criticism. They wanted to be there, and it was fun.”

The loss to Northside in the title game broke a 15-game winning streak.

North Little Rock had beaten Northside twice earlier this season with the last game, a triple overtime triumph.

Sophomore Collin Moore led North Little Rock with 19 points and seven rebounds, while Northside’s Isaiah Joe had 20 to lead all scorers. That wasn’t enough to be named Most Valuable Player as that honor went to Northside’s Tevin Brewer, who had 18 points, six rebounds and also dished out three assists.

North Little Rock didn’t start out the season on fire but along the way continued to improve and gel its team chemistry. After losing their first conference game of the year at Conway, the Wildcats’ winning stretch started and was cemented with a 69-66 triumph at Northside on Jan. 20.

“We won some games at the Conway tournament that were really big,” Rice said. “In the Neosho tournament over the Christmas break, we won three games and only lost to prep school. After the Northside win, I thought we might be able to make some noise and do something.”

The Wildcats followed with three overtime victories in a row. Rice said somebody different stepped up in all three overtime wins. He added that this year’s team made the coaching staff better.

Unfortunately, North Little Rock’s season ended with a bitter taste in its mouth in the 7A title game. With the loss, the Wildcats finished with a 25-5 record. That was the first time Rice had been in a championship game and had to face the disappointment of losing.

“That meeting after the game was tough,” he said. “I told the juniors and seniors to breathe in and feel what that feeling is like. I told them I hope that awful feeling is inspiration for next year.”

The Wildcats lose four seniors in Jarvis Ricks, B.J. Walker, Deion Dobbins and Des Duckworth. Ricks was the point guard, second-leading scorer and who Rice wanted to have the ball. Dobbins averaged 18 points in conference and became a mature leader. Duckworth and Walker were similar and good shooters. Rice said he could count on one of the two to make shots and knew they wouldn’t force them if they weren’t going in.

“They stepped up and were great leaders and accepted their roles,” he said. “They didn’t fuss or fight and were selfless.”