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Wildcats advance to state finals in OT thriller

SENATOBIA – Brandon Cranford has one specific duty for the Pearl River Community College men’s basketball team: To take and make 3-point shots.

Wednesday in the semifinals of the MACJC State Tournament against Holmes, Cranford shook off a poor shooting game at the best possible time.

The sophomore from Louisville, Ky., swished a 3-pointer from the right corner with 33.8 seconds to play in overtime to give PRCC the lead 68-67, and the Wildcats made it stand up for a wild

69-67 victory.

Pearl River (20-4) advanced to play Northwest Mississippi in the championship game at 7 p.m. Thursday at Howard Coliseum on the NWMCC campus. The Rangers held off Northeast 83-80 to reach the finals. Holmes dropped to 21-4.

“Everybody kept telling me to keep my head and keep shooting,” said Cranford, who made his first and last 3-point attempts, and missed the four shots in between. “I just had to have confidence that I could make one when I needed to.”

Cranford’s game-winner was the 11th lead change, and came after eight ties.

The Wildcats led by eight points, 12-4, early in the game, including eight points by freshman Cedric Brim Jr. (Tupelo), who finished with 16 points. But after that, neither team led by more than five points the rest of the way.

“My kids just hung in there and fought the entire game,” said PRCC coach Chris Oney. “I really didn’t have to do much coaching. At one time out when we were behind, I looked in their eyes and I saw a determination that they weren’t going to lose.”

PRCC had to win a gritty defensive struggle that saw both teams shoot well below their norm.

The Wildcats, who came in shooting 50.6 percent from the field for the season, converted just 22 of 57 shots (38.6 percent), and the Bulldogs shot just 36.2 percent, 12 percentage points below their average.

There were also 48 fouls called and the two teams combined for 61 foul shots. PRCC converted 20 of 28 free throws, while the Bulldogs were 21 of 33 from the line.

That forced Pearl River to play small as the team’s top three big players, freshman Kirk Parker (Vicksburg), sophomore Jartavius Dobbs (Aberdeen) and sophomore Cameron Douglas (Columbus) all fouled out.

“We had to focus on blocking out, focus on the fundamentals of the game,” said sophomore Eric Thornton Jr. (Jackson) “We knew we had to pick each other up and not make silly mistakes.”

Thornton scored 21 points and grabbed 9 rebounds while playing 44 of the game’s 45 minutes. His free throw with 8.7 seconds remaining gave the Wildcats a two-point lead, but he missed the second that would have given PRCC a three-point lead.

The Bulldogs got a good look at a 3-point shot on the final possession of the game that would have won it, and an even better look at a putback that would have tied it, but both shots rattled off the rim no good.

The two teams were even at halftime 33-33, and the two heavyweights traded haymakers through the entire second half.

Holmes tied it 61-61 on a field goal with 1:55 to play, and that’s the way it stayed, as both teams squandered opportunities to score, thanks to tenacious defense at both ends.

“My mom watched Holmes play on Monday, and she told me she was going to bring the kids up today, because she knew we wouldn’t be playing Thursday,” said Oney.

“Now I get to call her and tell her to turn around, because we’re going to be here tomorrow night.”

The two teams could meet again next week in the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament at Clinton, as both teams have qualified for the regional

But if they do, it will be for the highest of stakes, in the championship game, as Pearl River is the second seed, while Holmes in the No. 4 seed. In the meantime, the Wildcats will play for the school’s 16th state championship on Thursday.

“We just going to keep playing our game, doing what we do, taking each game as it comes,” said Oney. “I’m extremely proud of my guys for the way they battled today.”


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