Saturday, December 15, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> NLR press gets to Devils

Leader sports editor

If one were to make an overall Top 5 ranking for high-school boys basketball, it very well could include, and one ranking does include, in no particular order, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Hall, Parkview and Fayetteville. In its last four games, North Little Rock has beaten the other four. The most recently vanquishing the Jacksonville Red Devils 60-52 Tuesday night at the Devils Den.

It was the second meeting between the two teams and the second eight-point victory for the Charging Wildcats (7-1). Tuesday’s win required something the previous three wins didn’t, a will to battle back from way behind. Against Parkview and Fayetteville, North Little Rock grabbed an early lead and controlled the action the rest of the way, resulting in 14 and 15-point wins. The Wildcats dominated every aspect of its game against Hall and won by 24. It wasn’t so easy against Jacksonville.

North Little Rock’s Kevaughn Allen got a breakaway dunk off the opening tip, but that momentum lasted just as long as the dunk took.

The Red Devils answered with the next 12 points of the game, and held a 16-4 lead with 2:50 remaining in the first quarter. Jacksonville made the first six shots it put up, and senior guard Justin McCleary had a hand in every one of them. McCleary scored six of the team’s first 12 points, and got assists on the other three baskets.

Wildcat coach Johnny Rice called timeout and his team began to slowly chip away at its deficit.

“That was important for us to go through something like this,” Rice said. “That’s why we scheduled Jacksonville twice. In the past, when we’ve gotten down like that we hadn’t come back. They came out and punched us in the mouth as hard as we’ve been punched all year, and we had the will to get up from it and fight back. This was a big game for us.”

Jacksonville’s lead was 20-11 at the end of the first quarter, and down to 30-26 by halftime. North Little Rock then opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run and never trailed again.

Jacksonville, which committed just two turnovers the entire first half, committed seven in the third quarter, including four on its first four possessions.

The Red Devils didn’t even get a shot up until the 4:39 mark of the quarter, and didn’t make a shot until just 3:52 remained in the third.

Rice said stopping McCleary was a focal point at halftime, and the strategy worked perfectly. The Wildcats relentlessly denied McCleary the ball, and no other Red Devil seemed capable of consistently breaking down North Little Rock’s pressure with the dribble.

“We’ve got to find people who are able to handle that pressure besides J-Mac,” Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner said. “We’ve got seniors out there who should be able to handle it better than that. But right now nobody is doing that.”

Conversely, North Little Rock’s senior point guard, DayShawn Watkins, didn’t score in the first half, but came out on fire in the third. Watkins scored 14 points in the third quarter, including all nine of the opening barrage.

North Little Rock’s lead grew to as much as 44-34 with a minute remaining in the period, but Jacksonville had one final offensive to mount.

Jacksonville went on a run early in the fourth quarter. Aaron Smith’s three pointer with 5:26 left in the game pulled the Red Devils to within 49-47. Again Rice called timeout, and again his team took control after the short break.

Thomas Alexander hit a three pointer right out of the timeout. McCleary answered with a pull-up jumper to make it 52-49, but the Wildcats went on a 6-1 run to make it 58-50 with 2:16 remaining.

The Red Devils employed the foul strategy to lengthen the game and try to get back in it, but the turnover bug bit again down the stretch. Jacksonville got exactly what it wanted from the fouls. North Little Rock missed the front end of three-straight one-and-one free-throw attempts.

Jacksonville failed to capitalize on any of them. The Red Devils turned it over twice and missed a three pointer after the third opportunity.

After facing such a brutal stretch of games and winning them all, Rice gave high praise to the Red Devils.

“They’re not as big as those other teams we’ve faced,” Rice said. “But as far as being hard-nosed and playing tough defense, as far as being disciplined and structured in executing what they set out to do, they’re the best team we’ve played this year.”

Watkins led all scorers with 17 points while Allen dropped in 16 and Alexander 12 for the Wildcats. McCleary and Smith each scored 14 while Keith Charleston added 12 for the Red Devils.

North Little Rock and Jacksonville take part in the Arkansas Hoops Challenge today at Maumelle High School. Jacksonville faces old conference rival Jonesboro at 5:40 p.m. while North Little Rock closes the event against Clarksville at 8:20.