POPLARVILLE – One collective sigh of relief left Marvin R. White Coliseum on Monday night after an East Central halfcourt shot clanked off the iron at the buzzer.
In arguably its toughest contest to date, No. 9 Pearl River had all it could handle in Monday's 72-70 victory over ECCC.
Reigning All-American Eric Thornton Jr. (Canton; Murrah) converted the decisive basket in the final seconds, catching a pass from LaGarious White (Ridgeland; Brandon) under the basket and contorting his body enough to lay the ball up and in — all while levitating through the teeth of ECCC's defense.
"I told Coach (Robert) Thompson I'm happy we won the game but I can't believe this keeps happening to them. They could easily have the same record we have. They have lost some really close games, similar to the way they lost tonight," PRCC coach Chris Oney said. "This time I couldn't say I knew we had it the whole time like I do normally. When you've been doing this this long, especially with the way we won over Meridian, you would think it would bounce the other way against you but it didn't and I'm happy to be moving on 18-0."
The victory extends the program's best winning streak to 18 games and keeps the Wildcats as the lone undefeated program among Division-I programs. The win also quickly erased any fond memories from PRCC's 99-66 victory in Decatur earlier in the season.
BATTLE FROM START TO FINISH
PRCC (18-0 overall, 9-0 MACJC) scored the first two points of the game but ECCC (8-10, 1-8) immediately put the Wildcats on their heels by roaring ahead 16-5.
A fastbreak dunk off of a midcourt steal by Kelvin Allen (Olive Branch) followed by a coast-to-coast layup from Cedric Brim Jr. (Tupelo; Shannon) punctuated an 8-0 run to pull PRCC within one, 23-22, late in the first. Both teams made short runs until the halftime buzzer with ECCC clinging to a 33-30 advantage.
"We kind of panicked early and missed some shots we normally make," Oney said. "Eighteen games in, it's not that we haven't seen everything but the grind of the season is on us. Luckily we were able to make some big plays and get some stops."
LSU transfer Brandon Rachal (Natchitoches, La.; Natchitoches Central) had 10 points at the break, but he came alive in the second half, scoring with touch in the lane and then knocking down several huge 3-pointers; the first pulled PRCC within two at 47-45 and the second extended the Wildcats' late lead to 69-64.
The Warriors wouldn't go quietly, tying the game courtesy of six made free throws in the final 90 seconds.
Roti Ware's two makes with 13.9 seconds set up PRCC's final thrilling finish.
After getting across midcourt, White cut back toward the middle of the court and slashed by two defenders in the lane before dishing the ball to a charging Thornton for the game winner.
"Luckily for us we have some guys with experience who have been in this position before and they were able to make the plays down the stretch that we needed to make," Oney said.
LEADING THE WAY
Rachal had a career night for PRCC, scoring a season-high 29 points. Thornton and Brim added 16 and 10 respectively. Chris Agbo (Jos, Nigeria) chipped in nine points to go along with a team-high 11 rebounds. Rachal was second on the team with seven boards, including four on the offensive glass. Brim's four assists led PRCC. White and Thornton were a close second with three apiece.
Pearl River is back in action Thursday with a road trip to rival Jones College. Tip is set for 7:30 p.m. PRCC returns home next Monday for a 7:30 p.m. tilt against Hinds.
Tune into WRJW 1320 AM for all conference games for Carey Meitzler's call of the action. All home games are live streamed at PRCCAthletics.com. Anyone with a Roku device can also watch the game by downloading the "Pearl River CC" channel from the app store.