North Little Rock playing for a title, again

North Little Rock basketball coach Johnny Rice has spent the last nine seasons running the Charging Wildcats program and has led his team to be among the state’s very best.

On Thursday, at 1 p.m. at Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs, Rice will lead North Little Rock into its sixth state championship game in those nine seasons, with titles coming in 2018 and a historic three-peat with wins in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Rice is a North Little Rock lifer as a graduate of the high school and was a player on the 1986 state runner-up team.

North Little Rock vs. Little Rock Central

  • 1 p.m., Thursday at Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs

  • TV: Arkansas PBS

  • Buy tickets by clicking here

  • NOTE: Tickets for the 2021 Centennial Bank Basketball Finals will be available to the public at noon the day before the game

On the other side is Brian Ross at Little Rock Central. Ross grew up in Ozark before he moved with his family to Little Rock and graduated from Arkansas Baptist, where he also played.

Ross, RIce and their teams have played twice this season and both were wins for Central.

The Tigers are coming into the game on a six-game winning streak and have gone 17-1 since the Christmas break. 

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North Little Rock is 20-2 on the season, while Central is 24-4. The losses are to Little Rock Christian, Parkview, Marion and Fort Smith Northside.

Central’s player to watch is sophomore guard Bryson Warren, who is considered one of the country’s top prospects in his class.

North Little Rock counters with a pair of senior guards in D.J. Smith and Tracy Steele Jr. along with Ke’Lel Ware and Ubong Etim upfront. Ware is a 7-foot center and a top junior prospect while Etim, 6-8, has signed with Bowling Green. This might be Rice’s most loaded team in terms of college prospects with Smith, Steele, Ware and Etim all expected to play in college. 

North Little Rock has won a total of 14 state championships, while Central has won 19, including last year’s co-championship with Conway.

North Little Rock roster

  • 0 - Jaden Smith, G, 5-10

  • 1 - Tracy Steele, G, 6-3

  • 2 - Deangilo “D.J.” Smith, G, 5-11

  • 3 - Charles Maris, G, 5-10

  • 4 - Kareame Cotton, F, 6-2

  • 10 - Kel'el Ware, C, 7-0

  • 11 - Ubong Abasi Etim, F, 6-8

  • 13 - Joshua Evans, G, 5-10

  • 20 - Mario Frazier, G, 6-2

  • 21 - Joseph “Reed” Miller, G, 6-0

  • 22 - Peyton “Kai” Davis, G, 6-2

  • 23 - Kelon Jackson, G, 6-3

  • 32 - Alan Ingram, G, 6-3