HUTCHINSON, Kansas — Shortly after 11-seed Pearl River took the Hutchinson Sports Arena court Tuesday it looked like the program's first trip to the NJCAA Tournament might be a short one. The 22-seed Williston State Tetons came out firing, but the Wildcats absorbed the early blows before coming to life mid-way through the first. Sparked by their bench, the Wildcats built a double-digit lead by the break and pulled away late to claim the 83-69 victory.
The Wildcats advance to play 6-seed Odessa (27-6 overall) at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The Wranglers earned a Round 1 bye.
"I thought the guys came out and played to represent the state. I really did," Pearl River coach Chris Oney said. "We started out a little nervous because we were anxious to get out there. Once things settled in and we started playing the way we played to get here I thought the game started to go our way some."
The Tetons (22-11) showed why they were one of the nation's top offensive teams this season, mounting an early 20-7 lead in the first six minutes Tuesday.
Then the tide turned for The River.
"When Coach called timeout he said we just have to settle down and get a couple of stops and that's what we did," Cedric Brim Jr. said. "Then the offense started going."
LaGarious White (Brandon; Ridgeland) came off the bench and sent a jolt through the PRCC (26-3) lineup, quickly knocking down three 3-pointers — his third pulling the Wildcats within seven, 20-13.
"I think LaGarious White came in and gave us all confidence. When he came in and hit some shots I could see some of the other guys like C.J. (Brim) and Kirk (Parker) start nodding their heads, saying 'OK, let's go,'" Oney said. "Things started to look familiar to us; playing defense, making shots and getting out in transition. That's when we took control of the game."
Aided by some defensive stops and hustle plays on both ends of the court, the Wildcats made their run. Vicksburg native Kirk Parker (Vicksburg) scored a putback with 9:51 remaining to give Pearl River its first lead of the game at 21-20. The two teams traded shots but thanks in large part to 8 points from Parker, the Wildcats held a 43-34 advantage at the break.
"I think the team needed energy. We were a little slow on the start," Parker said. "Somebody had to step up to keep us going so I thought I needed to make the energy plays, the hustle plays and get some big rebounds for the team."
The second half started a lot like the first and the Tetons eventually tied the game 47-47. Once again a switch flipped and the Wildcats took turns in a next-man-up approach to ensure their stay in Kansas wouldn't be ended prematurely.
Williston State briefly took a 52-51 lead before the Wildcats ripped off eight straight — bookended by a 3-pointer and jumper from Fred Thompson (Biloxi).
Then it was Brandon Rachal (Natchitoches, La.; Natchitoches Central) who stepped up. With under four minutes to play, Rachal scored six straight points — including a sequence where he backed down a defender to score under the basket and then picked a Tetons' pocket at the other end to start a fast break before eventually being fouled with 153 seconds remaining and a 69-61 lead.
The Wildcats proceeded to make the bulk of their free throws down the stretch to ice the victory.
"I wasn't that worried because we got into the hole by doing things we talked about not doing. I thought once we started doing what we're supposed to do we had a chance to climb back into the basketball game," Oney said. "We knew coming into the game that they like to get out and run and shoot a lot of 3s. I've been around this game a long time and I have never seen a team make them all. I knew if we could get them to stop making a few we could get out and make some easy baskets."
LEADING THE WAY
Cedric Brim Jr. (Tupelo; Shannon) led the way for Pearl River, scoring 22 points with 12 crucial points coming from the free throw line.
Jonas James III (Jackson; Murrah) and Rachal each added 12 points. White finished with nine points.
"Everybody is willing to have their night. This team is very talented and I think anybody can break out at any time," said Parker, who led PRCC with seven rebounds.
Chris Agbo (Jos, Nigeria) was second on the team with six rebounds. He also led the team with two blocks.
Rachal, Brim and James all had three assists.
With the program's first NJCAA Tournament win now secured, the Wildcats have an added bounce in their step and they're hungry for more.
"We told the guys there's absolutely no pressure," Oney said. "We already have a ring coming. Now we're just trying to make the decorations on the left side of it as pretty as we can make it. Every game we finish ahead, the decoration gets more and more pretty. There's absolutely no pressure at all on us. I know that we're in uncharted territory with each game we win, but we're going to look back on it once it's all over and say job well done.
"While we're in the moment, we're going to stay in the moment and see how far we can take this thing."
HOW TO WATCH
Every game this year will be streamed at NJCAATV.com as part of their subscription plan. The Championship Game at 1 p.m. March 23 will be televised for the first time by CBS Sports Network.
To keep up with the entire tournament, bookmark the NJCAA's Men's Championship Central page at NJCAA.org.