CLINTON, Miss. — The No. 15 Pearl River Wildcats have re-written the school's record books time and time again during the 2018-19 season but the latest chapter was the greatest.
For the first time in the program's history, the Wildcats are headed to The Tournament, the NJCAA's 24-team national competition, after gutting out a 57-52 victory over Holmes in the Region XXIII Tournament final.
The program's first Region XXIII title was the culmination of a three-day grind that featured a 78-43 win over Northeast in the first round at Mississippi College and a 63-61 overtime thriller over Jones College in the semifinals.
Friday's victory came against a Bulldog team (17-10 overall) that ended the Wildcats' season a year ago with the same trip to Hutchinson, Kansas, on the line. A year later, the veteran-led Pearl River (25-3) squad hadn't forgotten.
"Ever since the last time we lost to Holmes the goal has been to get back here and go to Hutch and that's what we did," sophomore Jonas James III said.
The foundation for Friday's historic win was set in place during the team's first meeting of the year.
"I told y'all I wanted to thank you now for this ride you're fixing to take me on because it's going to be a special ride and at the end of it I may not even be able to talk," Pearl River coach Chris Oney told the team in the locker room, fighting back his emotions. "There have been hundreds of guys who have come through this program and wanted to experience this moment. I know right now they're jumping up and down because they feel this.
"You did this for them."
HOW THE GAME WAS WON
Jerrez Porter (Clinton) opened the game with a big 3-pointer from the corner. The two teams traded shots for much of the half but a 13-0 run finally gave the Wildcats room to breathe with a 31-19 advantage.
Kirk Parker (Vicksburg), who didn't factor into the scoring on the night, teamed up with Chris Agbo (Jos, Nigeria) to alter the game on the defensive end. Although PRCC's offense was clicking in the first half, the team's scoring success could have been traced back to the hustle and commanding presence of its big men inside.
"For this team, we need to do that," said Parker, asked about diving on the ball for loose balls and banging with the Bulldogs in the paint. "I'll do anything for this team because they mean something to me."
The team effort gave the Wildcats a 33-21 halftime advantage.
Holmes chipped away at PRCC's lead in the second half, cutting Pearl River's lead to 39-33 with 12 minutes remaining. A patented tear drop in the lane from James pushed PRCC's lead back out to 41-33.
After both teams traded baskets, LaGarious White (Ridgeland; Brandon) hit a long-range 3-pointer in front of PRCC's bench to push the Wildcats back ahead 46-37.
As the minutes ran off the scoreboard, Holmes didn't relent and continued to put pressure on the Wildcats with contested makes. An 8-0 run by the Bulldogs brought Holmes within two at 51-49.
A determined Pearl River promptly responded when James drove the lane and dished a pass to Brandon Rachal (Natchitoches, La.; Natchitoches Central). The LSU transfer, crashing the baseline, picked the pass and slammed it home to give PRCC a 53-47 lead with 2:11 left.
Holmes gave PRCC one last scare with under 15 seconds left when the Bulldogs hit a 3-pointer to pull within three at 55-52. Officials said Cedric Brim Jr. stepped out of bounds while racing back down the sideline on the ensuring possession, giving HCC one last chance.
Needing one last stop, the Wildcat defense answered the call. Holmes heaved a desperation 3-pointer toward the basket with 5.9 seconds remaining, but the shot landed out of bounds and Pearl River ran out the remainder of the clock to secure the victory.
"Holmes has a great basketball team," Brim said. "Coach talked about putting together 40 minutes one last time and that's what we did."
Rachal once again led PRCC with 24 points and nine rebounds. Eric Thornton Jr. (Canton; Murrah) added 10 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals. James finished with nine points and a team-high five assists. Agbo and Parker combined for 14 rebounds.
"I'm really proud of the sophomores. This is a special group," Oney said before pausing. "This is forever. This is for all the Wildcats."
NOT DONE YET
Oney demanded his Wildcats to answer the call and step up time and time again Friday. Following the game, Oney had one more impassioned plea for his players.
"Why not us? Why can't we win five more? Why stop here? This was the dream and we haven't talked about after this but let's start dreaming another dream," he said. "Enjoy this, go to bed and dream another dream. Let's go win five more."
The show will include Jockjive Sports' Robert Williamson as host, with bracket reveals, on-air analysis, highlights, exclusive interviews and in-depth information about the field.
Following the game, both Brim and Rachal were named to the All-Region XXIII Tournament Team.
Prior to the men's final, Mychala Linzy (Clinton) was named to the All-Region XXIII Tournament Team. In front of her hometown fans, Linzy led Pearl River with 16 points in the Lady Wildcats' narrow 69-66 loss to Copiah-Lincoln in their Tournament opener.