POPLARVILLE, Miss. — There are seemingly very few sure things in life: Death, taxes and the Pearl River men's basketball team in the Region XXIII semifinals. Coach Chris Oney's 11th-ranked Wildcats overcame an early deficit Tuesday to stamp their ticket to Clinton by toppling visiting Northwest 68-56 inside Marvin R. White Coliseum.
The victory sends the top-seeded Wildcats back to the region's "final four" for a fourth straight season.
The Wildcats will now face Holmes in Clinton on Thursday. The Bulldogs advanced by defeating LSU-Eunice 79-64. Game time has not yet been finalized.
"I knew how dangerous that team is. They have length, they have guys who can shoot and they have a dynamic point guard," Oney said. "What I saw on film was they were the team that came out to start the game for the first 20 minutes of each game. And then they had 20 minutes where they weren't as good with a few bad shots and poor defense. I said to my staff they'll be ready to play so they'll give us a good 25 minutes so we have to stay close and then I think we can take them down the stretch.
"Luckily I was somewhat of a prophet on that."
Oney was exactly right. In a game filled with runs, the Rangers made the first one, jumping out to a 9-1 lead and forcing the Wildcats to call the game's first timeout just 4 minutes into the contest.
Whatever Oney told his guys worked. Earl Smith (Jackson; Lanier) hit a 3 from the top of the arc to spark a 11-0 run. Jaronn Wilkens (Biloxi) scored the first six of a career-high 31 points during the run, first on a layup with an assist from his twin, Jariyon Wilkens (Biloxi), and later on two putbacks.
"They switched to zone and it allowed us to slow down and settle down," Oney said of the early 9-1 deficit. "I thought we were rushing early. That ignited us and got us in the game."
After the two sides traded baskets, with PRCC (12-1 overall) holding a narrow 21-16 lead, the Rangers (8-8) surged ahead 27-21.
Not to be out-done the Wildcats countered with a 8-0 run that was punctuated by a deep Jariyon Wilkens 3-pointer and then a thunderous Jaronn Wilkens baseline dunk. Clinging to a 32-30 lead late, Jaronn Wilkens scored his 15th point of the half with a buzzer-beating putback.
Reigning Forrest General Wildcat of the Week Cameron Brown (Hattiesburg) got on the scoresheet early in the second half with a 3-pointer for a 37-32 lead.
The two sides traded shots early on until the Wildcats called a timeout holding a 43-37 lead with 12:42 to play.
The Wildcats came out of the stoppage on a 9-1 run to push their lead back out to 52-38. During the run, Ankerion Gross (Sardis; North Panola) nailed a 3-pointer, Jaronn Wilkens slammed home an alley-oop pass from Smith and J'Quan Ewing (Clarksville; Kenwood) crashed the lane, caught a quick pass from Jaronn Wilkens and slammed the ball home for the Wildcats' 52nd point.
For the next seven minutes or so the two sides traded baskets, with PRCC doing enough to maintain the advantage. Leading 62-56, the Wildcats closed out the game by scoring the final six points, with four of them coming in transition after beating Northwest's press.
"I said this year's team would be exciting in different ways. Last year's team pressed and ran but when it came down to it we always looked to Tae (Hardy) to go get us something," Oney said. "This year's team executes so well because we have guys who do so many good things."
LEADING THE WAY
Jaronn Wilkens had a career day for the Wildcats, scoring 31 points with 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. While cruising past his previous scoring high of 24 points, Wilkens was one off of tying his career-high in rebounds.
"I'm sick of calling him a 'warrior,'" Oney said. "Jaronn, like I told some of my Division I buddies, he's a matchup problem because he's so fast and can finish with both hands. That one possession he went by that kid so fast and dunked it that it changed the game.
"We're lucky we have him. I'd go in any foxhole with that kid. He's just … a warrior."
Gross finished second on the team with 11 points. Ewing was second on the team in rebounds with seven. Smith led PRCC with five assists.
By: Patrick Ochs
Pearl River Community College
Director of Marketing & Communications