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Rice, N. Little Rock boys back after one year hiatus

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Photographs by Ben Goff

North Little Rock head coach Johnny Rice

HOT SPRINGS -- North Little Rock has gone from winning three consecutive state championships to not qualifying for the state tournament in 2016 to earning its way back to today's Class 7A State Finals.

How does that happen?

Coach Johnny Rice shrugged his shoulders and offered the explanation that the Charging Wildcats have become team players.

"The seniors have accepted their roles and we've got a talented group of young players who have also accepted their roles," Rice said. "It may not have been the role that some of them were wanting, but they've all done what's best for the team."

North Little Rock (25-4) plays Fort Smith Northside (22-7) in today's 7A state championship game at 12:45 p.m. at the Bank of the Ozarks Arena. It will be the third meeting between the two 7A-Central Conference teams this season. North Little Rock won the previous two games, the last of which went into three overtimes.

Few teams have enjoyed as much success as the Charging Wildcats since Rice took over the program in 2012. North Little Rock is 117-26 in its past five seasons and has three state championships -- although one title was taken away from the program -- to show for it. The exception came during the 2015-2016 season when the Charging Wildcats finished fourth in the 7A-Central, leaving them out of the state playoffs.

North Little Rock has rebounded from last season's disappointment without having "that one superstar." Rice's three state title teams featured KeVaughn Allen, who is now starring for the University of Florida.

"We've got eight kids who have scored in double figures this season," Rice said of a team that is averaging 71.9 points a game. "Obviously not all of them are scoring that much in every game, but we've had someone almost every game who has given us 16, 18 or 20 points. ... The kids have really embraced that."

Seniors Deion Dobbins and Jarvis Ricks have been North Little Rock's leading scorers. Dobbins is averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds while Ricks is scoring 14 points a game to go along with 4.5 assists and only 1 turnover. Sophomore Collin Moore is averaging 12 points per game in addition to grabbing 7 rebounds and shooting 61 percent from the floor.

"If you would have polled the coaches in our league before the season, they would have picked us to finish fifth or sixth in the league by just knowing who everybody had coming back," Rice said. "Every team in our conference was senior-laden. We were the one team that didn't have any high-profile players."

North Little Rock will face two of the state's best in today's title game -- Grizzlies guards Tevin Brewer and Isaiah Joe, who have helped Northside roll up an average of 68.2 points a game.

"Tevin Brewer, everything runs through him," Rice said, noting that Brewer scored 36 points in a semifinal victory over Springdale Har-Ber last week. "And Isaiah Joe scored 36 points on us here. That 1-2 punch is really, really difficult to deal with."

Sports on 03/11/2017

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