POPLARVILLE — A wide range of emotions overcame Coach Chris Oney as his Pearl River Wildcats won the Region XXIII Tournament for the first time last week. Monday proved to be another emotional experience for the Wildcats' coach as PRCC was the 22ndof 24 teams announced during the NJCAA Selection Show.
Making their NJCAA Tournament debut, the Wildcats (25-3) were awarded the 11thseed and will play 22nd-seed Williston State (22-10) at noon March 19.
The winner advances to play 6-seed Odessa at 8 p.m. March 20. Odessa posted a 27-6 record this year and earned one of eight at-large bids into the tournament.
The wait, Oney said, was definitely worth it.
"To be honest, it made it a little bit more exciting to sit through the entire show," Oney said. "I was surprised we got the 11thseed. I think it shows people took notice of our program and appreciated the season we had.
"The excitement, however, has turned into anxiety to do well. Now not only are we representing Pearl River, but we're representing the entire state. We want to go out there and not only make Pearl River proud, but make the entire state proud."
Preparation has already begun for Pearl River, as the Wildcats build a gameplan against an unfamiliar Tetons team based out of North Dakota.
"We have to continue to do what we've done, meaning play hard, play really good defense and share the ball to get the best shot. At the end of the day basketball is basketball," Oney said. "We have to show up and score one more point than them. I feel confident in my guys and assistant coaches to come up with a plan that gives us the best chance to win."
HOW WE GOT HERE
Fresh off the program's 16th MACJC State Title a year ago, Pearl River won their first 18 games of the 2018-19 season and were the final undefeated Division I program. During their run, the Wildcats climbed the NJCAA Rankings all the way to No. 7.
Pearl River earned one of 16 automatic bids to The Tournament when the Wildcats won their first Region XXIII Tournament Title last week in Clinton.
The Wildcats ran through the field, beating Northeast 78-43 and Jones College 63-61 before knocking off postseason rival Holmes 57-52 in the championship game.
In order to maneuver through the difficult region tournament, PRCC had to win in a number of ways. The versatility PRCC showed down the stretch should pay dividends in The Tournament.
"We're playing our best ball. Two hundred and five Division I basketball teams and we're one of 24 that's still playing. That means we have done the things we had to do to continue," Oney said. "We have had to make adjustments during games, so now when we have to do that in Hutchinson it won't be foreign to our guys. We'll all be on the same page."
The Wildcats enter Tuesday's opener averaging 84.1 points per game. Three players are scoring in double figures. Brandon Rachal (Natchitoches, La.; Natchitoches Central) leads PRCC, averaging 15.7 points per game. Cedric Brim Jr. (Tupelo; Shannon) and Eric Thornton Jr. (Canton; Murrah) average 14.4 and 12.7 ppg. Jonas James III (Jackson; Murrah) isn't far behind, averaging 9.1 ppg. He's also among the nation's assists leaders, averaging 6.1 per game.
The Wildcats' offense gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so, but their defense has also been a force this year. The Wildcats have smothered opposing attacks to the tune of 65.9 points per game, good enough for ninth nationally.
ABOUT WILLISTON STATE
The Tetons boast a 22-10 overall record and earned a spot in this year's NJCAA Tournament by winning the Region XIII Tournament.
Williston State, which won nine straight games to close out the season, averaged 90.1 ppg, while allowing opponents to score at an 84.2 clip.
ABOUT THE TOURNAMENT
The Tournament runs March 18-23 and is hosted in Hutchinson, Kansas, at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
The Tournament is a single elimination, 24-team field, consisting of 16 district champions and eight at-large bids. The top eight seeds received a first round bye.
All games will be streamed at NJCAATV.com. The championship game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network at 1 p.m. March 23.