The Zebra Invitational Tournament belongs to the host team again, but North Little Rock was one basket away from keeping the title a third straight year.

The Zebra Invitational Tournament belongs to the host team again, but North Little Rock was one basket away from keeping the title a third straight year.

Two shots to win it in the final 3 seconds would not fall for the Charging Wildcats, though, and Pine Bluff, despite missing four bonus shots in the final 50 seconds, escaped with a 51-49 Wednesday night at McFadden Gymnasium. It’s the first time since 2006 that Pine Bluff won its own tournament, but it was North Little Rock’s fourth straight title game appearance.

Darrian Kee scored the Zebras’ last six points, including a go-ahead layup left and a heavily-contested 3-point basket with 1:17 remaining to make it a 51-47 game.

“He just knows that it’s time for him to step up, and he’s doing a good job of that for us,” Pine Bluff coach Ronald Moragne said of Kee.

North Little Rock (9-3) pulled within two points on two Thomas Alexander free throws and got the ball back with 33.8 seconds left on a 5-second inbound violation against Pine Bluff. But Tyree’s Hollister lost the ball out of bounds with 21.7 left as he slipped driving down the baseline.

After a missed front end of 1-and-1 for the Zebras, DayShawn Watkins’ 3-ball that would have put the Wildcats in front rimmed out, and Quentin Williams secured the rebound and was fouled. He missed both shots in a double bonus, and officials added 0.3 second on the clock after a Wildcats timeout to make it 2.0 left. But Josh Laster’s halfcourt heave at the buzzer hit the backboard.

Moragne said he never thought the title would slip away from the Zebras.

“We’ve had a couple of weeks to work on some things and fix some things about the last part of the ballgame,” Moragne said. “… The kids are finally beginning to catch on to that.”

Before Kee took charge in the final minutes, Rickey Clements Jr. led the Pine Bluff charge with a game-high 20 points, scoring most of his baskets off the dribble.

“I talked to Rickey and told him, ‘You’ve got to be a leader for us,’” Moragne said. “You’ve got to carry us. You’ve got to pick it up for us. You’ve got to control the basketball and keep our heads in the game.”

Pine Bluff led 15-8 after the first quarter and led by as many as eight points in the half, but Cody Ware knocked down seven of North Little Rock’s last 10 points before the half to close the Wildcats’ deficit to 28-27.

After a strong third period defensively, the Zebras had their largest lead at 42-33. They had held the Wildcats to two field goals in the quarter.

North Little Rock climbed back with outside shooting, taking a 46-45 lead on a trey by Laster with 3:59 to go. Otherwise, the Wildcats did not shoot well from the floor, going 17 for 52. (32.7 percent).

“We were cold and we try to tell our kids when you don’t have a great shooting night to attack the rim,” North Little Rock coach Richard Alexander said. “We settled for jump shots. That’s what (Pine Bluff) wanted. We played right in their hands. That’s why they got that zone.”

But the Zebras attacked the basket all night and shot 19 for 37 (51.4 percent). Five of their shots were from 3-point range.

“Coach had been telling us we’ve got to attack the basket from the get-go,” Clements said. “It wasn’t just a certain quarter.”

Kee had 12 points, four rebounds and two steals for the Zebras. For the Wildcats, Ware finished with 19 points and Watkins added 11, while Thomas Alexander also totaled 10 rebounds.