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By Nate Olson | Photo by Tommy Land

A few days after one scouting service projected Nick Smith Jr. as the No. 3 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft and the same day that he was named to the McDonald’s All-American team, the Bryant student section didn’t care.

It took just a few minutes into the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game for the large contingent of Bryant students, situated in the end zone, to shower the North Little Rock star and Arkansas signee with the ol’ ‘OVERRATED’ chant. You know you’ve arrived when the opposing student section hits you with that, and the Bryant section, filled with members of the school’s four-time defending state championship football team, was exuberant. At one point at the end of the first quarter, a few carried on a loud conversation with Smith, who obliged, after flying out of bounds and scooting close to the railing where some were leaning over. 

It was mostly good, clean rousing and the emotion helped keep Bryant, which hadn’t lost a conference game entering the contest, in striking distance until the fourth quarter, when the Charging Wildcats pulled away for a 72-54 win. 

It was another teachable moment for Johnny Rice’s juggernaut of a club, which is No. 12 in the latest SBLive/Sports Illustrated national rankings as well as No. 1 in the SBLive Arkansas rankings. With Smith and fellow McDonalds’ All-American Kel’el Ware, an Oregon signee, and Corey Washington, who appears to have drastically improved his recruiting stock, North Little Rock seems primed to run through the rest of the season without a loss. 

But it’s nights like Tuesday that are a reminder that they aren’t invincible, and the road in the 6A-Central can be unforgiving. 

“We didn’t play our best game, for sure,” NLR coach Johnny Rice said. “I thought we played really bad the first half, and we played really selfish in the first half. That’s what we talked about at halftime. I think we outworked them, especially in the paint, in the second half. We talked about what travels on the road is defense and rebounding and sharing the basketball and making the right play. 

“The first half we didn��t do any of that; the second half, we did. We know we are going to get everybody’s best shot. We needed that. It wasn’t fun, but it is exactly what we need for down the road. On the road, a tough battle and [Bryant] was jacked up and making shots.” 

Ware said the message at halftime was crystal clear.

“Everybody had an off game tonight, but it wasn’t because of the crowd,” Ware said. “I really don’t know what it was, but we got it together.

“But [Rice] had a little talk with us at halftime, and we came out in the second half and played a little harder and played better defense.”

Rice and Co. realized how real the bullseye on their chests were when Arkansas’ No. 2 team, Jonesboro, beat them handily at a tournament on their home court. NLR bounced back nicely with a solid showing at a national tournament in Florida and then won the King Cotton Classic in Pine Bluff the week after Christmas.

If the student section didn’t affect North Little Rock like Ware claims, it might have given Bryant the spark it needed to tie the score in the third quarter after falling behind and stay close into the fourth quarter. With the combination of Bryant’s talent, and its newer home arena, many pundits would have picked this game as the one, maybe along with the game at Little Rock Central, as the toughest on the conference slate.

“I think that is the best crowd we have played against in two years,” Rice said. 

Bryant coach Mike Abrahamson was proud of his team’s effort in making things uncomfortable for NLR.

“Our guys really competed,” he said. “I am so proud of their effort. Rebounding is what hurt us the most probably. We were outrebounded by 12. North Little Rock gets 16 offensive rebounds. It’s tough to win when the opponent gets second and third opportunities like that. Their size, length and aggressive pursuit of the ball is so hard to deal with. 

“Washington really hurt us in that way in the second half. He’s so hard to keep off the glass. We can learn quite a bit from this game. Our guys played hard, but we’ll have to play better if we want to beat them down the road.”

What the Charging Wildcats did prove against the scrappy Hornets is that they won’t get rattled when the chips are down — something that must be pleasing to Rice. Even great teams can resort to uncharacteristic mistakes when the crowd gets loud, and things begin to snowball.

That never happened Tuesday night. In the third quarter, Smith could be seen calmly rallying his troops in the huddle as the pendulum swung Bryant’s direction. The Hornets, as well as they played, couldn’t go on a big run that would have put them up by four or six points. That would have been interesting to see how NLR responded. However, with the Charging Wildcats, that’s tough to do because they have so many weapons. When things got tough in the second half, Washington responded and scored 10 of his 20 points then and asserted himself on the boards as Abrahamson mentioned with a couple of key stick-backs to relieve the pressure in the fourth quarter. 

“We did the things we needed to do, and I found out some of the things we didn’t do well in the first half and tried to bring those to the second half to get us going,” Washington said. “Figuring those things out and dealing with the adversity is going to help us down the road as we make a run for the state championship.”

On a team with two McDonald’s All-Americans, it would be easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Washington again showed Tuesday what I have said for several weeks now — that is he is a Power 5 prospect. Some of those schools are taking notice that at 6-6, he is a jack-of-all-trades that can rebound (like he did last night) and finish on the break as well as anyone in the state. And like Smith, which you don’t always see with blue-chip players, he plays good defense.

“It just feels great going out and doing some things other people can’t do,” Washington said. “I just do my thing.”

The Charging Wildcats got a little better last night, even if they didn’t play well. If, and that is a big if, they are challenged again this season, they will have the Bryant game experience to lean on.