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NORTH LITTLE ROCK BASKETBALL | Defend the throne

North Little Rock's Khalil Gulley Jaison Sterling photo
North Little Rock's Khalil Gulley Jaison Sterling photo
North Little Rock's  Chibu Ekeh Jaison Sterling photo
North Little Rock's Chibu Ekeh Jaison Sterling photo

CONWAY — What the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats have been striving for all season happens today.

The 7A state defending champions meet the Springdale Bulldogs in the 7A state title game at 8:45 p.m. at the Hot Springs Convention Center. The Wildcats (25-2) advanced to the title game with victories over West Memphis and Bentonville while Springdale (22-5) defeated Fayetteville and Fort Smith Northside, 59-56. The two teams met in the finals of the Fort Smith Coke Classic over Christmas break where North Little Rock won 69-57.

Even though the Wildcats have defeated the Bulldogs once, Coach Johnny Rice is confident they know what is at stake and won’t take the game for granted. Winning another title has been their goal all season.

“When we played them before, we were able to stretch out the lead in the fourth quarter,” Rice said. “They have good guards and #5 (Tereke Eckwood), he’s good.”

In North Little Rock’s quarterfinal matchup with West Memphis, the Charging Wildcats secured a 77-63 victory. In that game, they didn’t shoot very well and were 45.1 from the field and 28.6 from 3-point range. The tournament was pushed back a day because of last week’s inclement weather, so North Little Rock hadn’t played in a week. Rice thinks that fact along with it being the third time it played West Memphis was a factor.

Monday’s semifinal contest against Bentonville was a different story. First of all, the matchup was highly touted since the Tigers have sophomore Malik Monk, a highly recruited guard, while the Wildcats have their own Division 1 recruits. Not only was the Conway gym packed with standing room only, but the doors had to be shut, and no one else was allowed in the building.

“With all the hype, we were up for that game,” Rice said. “Everybody had been talking about that game for a while.”

The Wildcats came out hot with making six of their first seven shots which included four 3-point baskets including two by Anton Beard. The one basket they did miss was rebounded and put back by Chibu Ekeh. With 4:27 left in the first period, Ekeh’ s dunk gave North Little Rock an 18-6 lead which set the tone for the contest. They shot 47.5 from the field and 55 percent from 3-point range.

“I thought we played and shot better on Monday,” Rice said. “We made our shots, and everyone knew what they had to do and how to defend.”

Even though North Little Rock only returns two players, senior Jawan Eldridge and junior Kevaughn Allen, who played in the state tournament last year, they have several other move-ins who have state tournament experience including Beard. What has worked for North Little Rock this year is it has developed chemistry, and the players know their roles.

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