CLINTON, Miss.— The Wildcats aren't done yet.
No. 15 Pearl River turned what could have been a disastrous first half into motivation as the Wildcats kept their season alive by battling past Jones College 63-61 in overtime.
The Region XXIII Tournament semifinal victory sends PRCC (24-3 overall) on to face familiar foe Holmes. The title clash is set for 7 p.m. at Mississippi College with a trip to Hutchinson, Kansas, and an automatic bid to the Men's Basketball Championship tournament on the line.
"Neither team wanted their season to end tonight," Pearl River coach Chris Oney said. "They had a spectacular season and wanted to play on and us too. That's what makes this time of year so fun.
"I'm just glad my warriors came out on top."
The first half was painful at times for the Wildcats. Normally one of the nation's most lethal offenses, Pearl River was held to 16 points; with the exception of scoring six of the final eight points in the half, the Wildcats were unable to find their groove.
That funk didn't last much longer.
"I told the guys, we only have 16 points but the bright side of it is we were playing defense so hard and so well they only have 24," Oney said. "We missed some free throws and layups but in the locker room I didn't see any wavering. I didn't see guys pouting or looking down.
"I saw guys saying let's go get it right this half and that's what we did."
The Wildcats came out firing in the second half, scoring five straight points to open the frame.
After a Brandon Rachal (Natchitoches, La.; Natchitoches Central) make, forward Chris Agbo (Jos, Nigeria) was bailed out on the other end of the court. Although he lost possession of a loose ball out of bounds, Jonas James III (Jackson; Murrah) picked a Bobcat's pocket and sent Rachal down the court. The LSU transfer was fouled, making one of two free throws. Rachal came up big again on the next JC possession, intercepting a pass and sending Cedric Brim Jr. the length of the court for an uncontested layup. The quick strike forced JC into calling a timeout just over two minutes into the half.
The stoppage didn't deter Pearl River. Six different Wildcats chipped in as PRCC proceeded to score the next 14 points to catapult ahead 35-26.
Three pointers soon dug the Bobcats out of their hole as Jones College regained the lead 41-40 with 7:16 remaining.
The two teams matched one another shot for shot down the stretch but JC held a 51-49 advantage with under 20 seconds remaining. After PRCC forced a shot clock violation on the defensive end, long-range specialist LaGarious White (Ridgeland; Brandon) faked a 3-pointer, drove the basket and lofted a shot up and through. Jones College had enough time for one more chance but the Bobcats' heave missed and Agbo grabbed the rebound to keep the game tied 51-51 through 40 minutes.
When PRCC fell at Jones College — the team's first defeat in 19 games to open the season — Agbo and Kirk Parker (Vicksburg) got into foul trouble and really handcuffed the Wildcats as a result. Thursday, it was JC's big men in Galen Alexander and Tirus Smith — two transfers from LSU and UTEP — who got into trouble.
"Our game plan was to go inside early," Oney said. "That was our game plan early; throw it inside and see what happens. Let's see if they can get a few fouls or if we could get a couple easy baskets and play inside-out."
Alexander fouled out early in overtime and with Smith also in foul trouble, PRCC didn't let up. The Wildcats continued to drive the post and as a result continuously got to the free throw line in overtime.
On back-to-back series Parker dove on the court for loose balls, once calling a timeout and the next swinging a ball to Brim, who was tripped and sent back to the free throw line. The two makes pushed PRCC ahead 57-55.
The next sequence, Brim stole the ball, dashed down the court and earned an and-one slashing to the basket.
The three-point play with 1:05 remaining gave Pearl River a 60-55 lead.
Jones hit a couple shots in the final seconds, but three free throws from James and Brim — coupled with a buzzer beater that wasn't — extended the Wildcats' season.
"C.J. is a champion. He knows what he means to me. I told him I knew him before he ever got here," Oney said of Brim, who at one point down the stretch was injured but waved off his substitute to stay in the game. "He made so many winning plays down the stretch."
LEADING THE WAY
Rachal led Pearl River with 25 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and two assists.
"All year we have said the same thing, that he's going to find a way to impact the game in some kind of way," Oney said.
Brim was PRCC's only other scorer in double figures with 13. Agbo and Parker combined for 10 points and 14 rebounds.
"With Kirk and Agbo, what I tell them is it's not about their numbers, it's about their presence," Oney said. "When they're on the floor their presence fuels us defensively and helps us win games.
"I'm always proud of those guys."
Entering the week, Oney's call to action for his players was to prepare for 120 minutes. Thursday's overtime threw off his math a bit but the sentiment remains.
"You never know when this kind of roster will come around again," he said. "Now we're down to 40 minutes to do something really, really special."