CLINTON, Miss. — In a year filled with "first time in a long time" moments, Pearl River's women's basketball team nearly added to the growing list Tuesday.
Making their first Region XXIII Tournament appearance since 2013-14, the Lady Wildcats nearly notched their first post-season win in five years, eventually losing to Copiah-Lincoln 69-66 at Mississippi College's A.E. Wood Coliseum.
The bittersweet loss marked the final contest in a remarkable season of growth for coach Scotty Fletcher and his Lady Wildcats.
Perhaps the biggest statement from Fletcher post-game was the fact his Lady Wildcats (16-9 overall) weren't just satisfied walking onto the court in Clinton — they wanted their second win over Co-Lin (21-6) in three games this year.
"I'm proud of the girls and the growth we have made since Day 1. We've come a long ways in four years. Our intentions were to come up here and win today obviously; to be the Cinderella team in our March Madness," Fletcher said. "It's bitter to lose. I can't stand losing. I truly thought we were going to come up here and win."
The Lady Wildcats played with a purpose from the opening tip. Jakia Harper (Jackson; Provine) hit a couple big 3-pointers and Elexis Peyton (Jackson; Provine) knocked down a long jumper to give PRCC a 10-4 advantage while simultaneously forcing Co-Lin to call a timeout. Mychala "Pooh" Linzy (Clinton) hit another 3 out of the stoppage and an old-fashioned three-point play from Peyton built PRCC a 16-6 lead.
"Anytime you enter a dog fight you have to punch first," Fletcher said. "You can't sit there and let them punch you."
Co-Lin closed out the quarter on a draining run, taking a 20-16 advantage into the break. Linzy hit another 3 to open the second quarter and Peyton converted a long jumper to tie the game 21-21 to jumpstart the PRCC offense in the second frame. The Lady Wildcats didn't let up, scoring 12 of the final 15 points of the first half — punctuated by another Linzy 3 in the final seconds — to hold a 33-28 lead.
Co-Lin used a couple runs in the third quarter to take a 51-45 lead into the final quarter.
Once again Pearl River's offense found its groove, eventually taking a 62-60 lead courtesy of an off balance hook shot in the lane from Gabby Brown (Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.; Choctaw) with 2:17 remaining. After Co-Lin hit a long jumper, Linzy converted both free throws with 87 seconds remaining to boost PRCC back ahead 64-62.
Co-Lin surged back ahead, however, and Linzy's 3-point attempt to go back ahead rimmed out, sealing PRCC's fate.
"The teams that are here aren't here by accident. These are the best eight teams in the region. We have to capitalize," Fletcher said. "Very, very, very proud of this group and what they accomplished. Appreciative of them buying in.
"They wanted to win. We didn't think we were going to lose. Just some plays here and there."
LEADING THE WAY
Clinton natives Linzy and Shania Wright (Clinton) had big games for PRCC. Linzy led the Lady Wildcats with 16 points while Wright added six points and a team-high seven rebounds. Harper and Peyton rounded out Pearl River's scoring leaders with 12 and 11 points respectively. Peyton also dished out a team-high four assists.
During his post-game remarks Fletcher highlighted the impacts of Brown and Peyton, the team's lone sophomores.
"I'm very appreciative of what Gabby and Lex have meant to me personally and our program," he said. "They have done a lot for our institution and been model citizens."
Losing only three players from a team that won 16 wins, Fletcher's optimistic on the team's future.
"We're one of the youngest teams in the state but we've grown up," he said. "I think we're on the right track."
Fletcher made sure to thank PRCC's administration, spearheaded by President Dr. Adam Breerwood and Athletics Director Jeff Long, for building a culture that's conducive to progress.
"We have grown tremendously," he said, "It's an easy sell when you bring a recruit onto campus with all we have to offer. It starts at the top.
"This is a special place. What makes it a special place? The people."