Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Charging Wildcats earn title, finally

Leader sportswriter

Top-ranked North Little Rock survived a late Fayetteville run to win the boys class 7A state championship game 64-52 in front of a crowd of 9,018 Saturday at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock.

Fayetteville rallied early in the fourth quarter to take a 47-46 lead with six minutes left in the game, but the Wildcats answered with an 18-3 run that put the game away and gave NLRHS its first boys basketball state championship since 1971.

At the end of three quarters, the Charging Wildcats (28-1) led 42-37, but the Bulldogs (26-4) had the momentum heading into the final eight minutes. A free throw by senior forward Thomas Alexander late in the third quarter gave North Little Rock a 42-33, but Fayetteville’s Manuale Watkins scored the final four points of the period to cut the deficit to four.

Manuale Watkins, who led all scorers with 19 points, opened the final period with a transition layup to bring the Bulldogs within three. Fayetteville cut it to one on a putback by 6-foot-10 senior forward Tyler McCullough, and took the lead the following possession with another McCullough basket inside the paint, which put the Bulldogs up 47-46 with 5:54 to play.

The lead didn’t last long. Charging Wildcats senior point guard and floor general, Dayshawn Watkins, scored the next four points to give North Little Rock the lead for good. The go-ahead basket came on a three-foot floater in the middle of the lane with 4:55 to play. The second was an eight-foot jumper over McCullough, which put the Charging Wildcats up 50-47.

Dayshawn Watkins scored seven of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, and grabbed two key steals in that time to help North Little Rock capture its first boys state basketball title in 42 years.

“As the point guard of this team, I was just scoring whenever I needed to,” Dayshawn Watkins said. “I knew at the end I needed to take over a little bit, because we weren’t getting the high-percentage shots in the paint. So I just took over from there.”

After a free throw by Fayetteville’s Jawan Smith with 3:37 to play, North Little Rock scored 14 of the game’s next 16 points, which gave the pro-Charging Wildcats fans plenty to cheer about.

North Little Rock took its first double-digit lead, 60-50, on an inside basket by senior center Cameron Williams with just over a minute to play. The Charging Wildcats pushed the lead to 14 before Fayetteville’s Tre Boyd connected on a jumper just outside the top of the key with seven seconds remaining to set the final score.

“In the last five minutes we stepped up, made plays and got stops,” said North Little Rock coach Johnny Rice. “That was the difference. We tried to get Tyler (McCullough) away from the rim a little bit so we could open up and get to the rim. And Dayshawn, I don’t know what he did (statistically) in the last three or four minutes, but he controlled the game.”

Manuale Watkins scored the first point of the game on a free throw, which was the only other time Fayetteville held the lead. Kevaughn Allen, who took the Most Valuable Player award, paced the Charging Wildcats’ scoring in the first two quarters.

He scored six in the first period as North Little Rock led 13-9 at the end of one, and five in the second to help his team build a 27-23 lead at halftime.

“It was very fun for me just to be out there with these guys, having fun and playing the game,” Allen said. “It’s very important to set the tone early. When you do that it’s easy for them (teammates) to feed off that energy and get in rhythm.”

North Little Rock made 25 of 53 shots from the floor, including 4 of 9 from three-point range. Fayetteville made 22 of 41 shots from the floor and 2 of 7 from beyond the arc, but suffered from a 13-1 deficit in steals.

“We had a couple of crucial turnovers,” said Fayetteville coach Kyle Adams. “When you get out there and you’re up 48-47, we got them reeling a little bit. I’m not sure they’ve been behind in the fourth quarter in a long time. But they’re (North Little Rock) an awfully good basketball team. So let’s give them all the credit in the world. Coach Rice has done a good job with that team. They share the basketball very, very well, and obviously they’re very talented.”

Both teams had four players finish with double-digit points. Manuale Watkins’ 19 paced the Bulldogs. Smith had 11. McCullough and 6-8 senior Caleb Waitsman scored 10 apiece. McCullough finished with a double-double as he also grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds.

For North Little Rock, Alexander and Allen scored 17. Watkins had five assists to go with his 16 points, and senior guard Gary Vines finished with a double-double, scoring 10 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, four of which came in the fourth quarter.

“I thought Gary’s rebound late in the fourth quarter kind of sealed it for us,” Rice said. “I don’t know of a better rebounding guard.”

For Rice, a North Little Rock native that played for the Charging Wildcats in the ‘80s, coached within the school district for 21 years before taking over as the head senior boys basketball coach this season, bringing home the program’s first state title since 1971 is a dream come true.

“We haven’t won it in 40 years and I’ve been around for a while,” Rice said. “We put the schools together in about ’91, and everybody thought we had all these state championships, and we never have done it. It’s been so much hard work and there were so many people pulling for us. That’s what went through my mind.”