Wildcats hold off Northeast to reach regional finals

CLINTON – “One more win to Kansas,” was the mantra for Pearl River Community College after the Wildcats defeated Northeast Mississippi Thursday in the semifinals of the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament.

PRCC took command early, built a big lead in the second half, then weathered a storm at the end as the Tigers rallied, ultimately prevailing 86-79 at Wood Coliseum on the Mississippi College campus.

Pearl River (23-4) will battle Holmes at 7:30 p.m. Friday for the regional championship. The Bulldogs (23-4) defeated Southwest 89-74 in the other semifinal game. Northeast ended its season 19-8.

“We just stuck to the game plan,” said sophomore Rodney Mallett (Lexington). “We don’t think any team can stay in front of us. We were just driving and kicking to the shooters.”

The Wildcats never trailed in the game, setting the tone on their first basket, a baseline drive for a layup by freshman Eric Thornton Jr. (Jackson).

The Tigers tied it up with a basket on the ensuing possession, but freshman Cedric Brim Jr. was fouled on a 3-point attempt, made all three free throws, and PRCC was off and running on a 16-4 run to take an 18-6 lead.

Northeast used an 11-0 run to cut the margin to 18-16, but the Wildcats answered with a 9-0 surge and they led by double digits until the final minute of play.

“I thought we made some more shots in the first half, did a good job moving the ball and were a little crisper in our passes,” said PRCC coach Chris Oney,

“Toward the end, I thought our youthfulness showed, but that was good for us, because it showed us that we can’t let down.”

Pearl River led 44-30 at halftime and kept the pedal to the metal in the second half, opening up a 67-43 lead with 9:52 to play.

“They were throwing a lot of help defense at me, two or three at a time, so I just had to find the open man,” said Thornton, who had a superb game in every area except foul shooting. The state’s leading scorer finished with 20 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists.

Thornton has been battling a sprained wrist, and that affected his play at the line, where he was just 6 of 12. But he came through in the clutch, when the Tigers mounted a big rally, cutting Pearl River’s margin to seven at the end.

In the final minute, Mallett made four foul shots, Thornton was three of four from the line and freshman Willie Logan (Flowood) sealed the win with a pair of free throws with 11.6 seconds to play.

Thornton and Mallett also teamed up to keep the Wildcats calm in the face of a tough Northeast press that gave the Wildcats problems down the stretch.

“My job is to stay calm when the other team makes a run,” said Thornton. “If the other guys see me start to panic, then they start to panic. So I just try to lead them and keep everything positive, so they can keep their composure.”

Brim continued his hot play in postseason, finishing with 20 points, and Mallett added 13 points and a season-high 8 rebounds, along with 6 assists.

Friday’s championship game is a rematch of last week’s MACJC State Tournament semifinal, won by the Wildcats 69-67 in overtime.

Pearl River freshman Eric Thornton Jr. Drives the lane for a shot during action last week against Holmes in the MACJC State Tournament semifinal game at Senatobia. The Wildcats and Bulldogs meet again Friday in the NJCAA Region 23 championship game at Clinton.

The winner Friday earns an automatic bid for the NJCAA Division I National Tournament at Hutchinson, Kan. The losing team will have to wait until Monday, when the tournament field is announced to see if they earned one of eight at-large bids.

“I think my kids and their kids were wanting this matchup in the championship game,” said Oney. “But I also think my coaching staff and their coaching did not want it, because we both know it’s going to be a long 24 hours and a tough matchup for both teams.”

NJCAA Region 23 Tournament

At Wood Coliseum, Clinton

MEN

Tuesday’s Games

Quarterfinals

Southwest 70, Northwest 68

Holmes 74, Copiah-Lincoln 60

Northeast 75, Baton Rouge 59

Pearl River 66, Gulf Coast 57

Thursday’s Games

Semifinals

Holmes 89, Southwest 74

Pearl River 86, Northeast 79

Friday’s Game

Championship

7:30 p.m. – Holmes (23-4) vs. Pearl River (23-4).

PRCC BASKETBALL SUMMARY---MEN

NJCAA Region 23 Tournament

Semifinal

Thursday at Clinton

Pearl River 86, Northeast Mississippi 79

Northeast 30 49 – 79

Pearl River 44 42 – 86

NORTHEAST MISSISSIPPI (17-9): JaQunate Bell 5, Job Vernor 2, Denzel McDuffie 11 (10 rebounds), Felix Hayes 14 (8 rebounds), Arthur Johnson 1, Thomas Cain 2, Bryant Givens 19 (6 assists), Conner McKay 6, Darius Williams 13, Antares Gwyn 6 (9 rebounds).

PEARL RIVER (23-4): Jonas James III 4, Cedric Brim Jr. 20, Rodney Mallett 13 (8 rebounds, 6 assists), Eric Thornton Jr. 20 (9 rebounds, 8 assists), Brandon Cranford 5, Cameron Douglas 6, Willie Logan 4, Ray Anderson 3, Kirk Parker 4 (9 rebounds), Jartavius Dobbs 4.

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