It didn’t always look easy but North Little Rock beat Little Rock Central, 58-38, in the Class 6A semifinals on Saturday night at Little Rock Southwest.
The win puts the ‘Cats into the 6A title game against Bentonville at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday night in Hot Springs.
It will be a North Little Rock doubleheader of a night as the girls team will also be playing for a title against Fort Smith Northside at 6 p.m.
Playing for a state title is kind of a thing for North Little Rock coach Johnny Rice, who is headed to his 7th state championship game in his 10 years as a head coach at the school. Rice, a North Little Rock lifer who graduated from Northeast and was previously a career assistant has won five state titles at the school.
The game got off to a slow start, as neither team scored in the first five minutes of the first quarter.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Rice said. “It’s emotional.”
North Little Rock is nationally ranked and is now 25-3, with its only in-state loss to Jonesboro. The other two losses were to Florida schools IMG Academy and Calvary Christian Academy.
North Little Rock stars Nick Smith Jr. and Kel’el Ware didn’t disappoint the capacity crowd.
Both are McDonald’s All-Americans and both have signed to play Division i basketball next season. Smith with Arkansas, while Ware is headed to Oregon.
Smith is also on the shortlist for national high school player of the year and ESPN has the 6-foot-5 guard projected as the No. 3 pick in the 2023 NBA draft.
Both finished in double figures with Smith having 24 on the night and Ware, who is 7-foot, finished with 17, while also being a human eraser inside.
“We didn’t play as well on offense as I would have liked,” Rice said. “But our defensive effort was there.”
Central finishes the year at 18-12.
The state tournament bracket can be viewed by clicking here.
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