HUTCHINSON, Kansas — Eleventh-seed Pearl River gave Odessa all it could handle in the second half Wednesday and nearly rallied back to complete its upset bid of the 6th-seeded Wranglers before coming up just short in the NJCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 matchup, falling 69-61 at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
The loss ends a remarkable season for a Pearl River program that rewrote program record books week after week all season.
"This team will go down in history," said Pearl River coach and Division I, District 15 Coach of the Year Chris Oney. "They reached heights that no other Pearl River team had ever done; from winning 18 straight to winning the first Region (XXIII) Tournament to winning the first NJCAA Tournament game.
"Whenever another team has a good year, this team will always be mentioned."
Pearl River's 26 wins ties the 2002-03 team for second most in program history, only behind the 1997-98 team's 27 victories. The Wildcats' were Mississippi's lone representative in the NJCAA Tournament.
"The competitive person in me, I'm ready to come back and get started tomorrow to get this taste out of my mouth," Oney said. "Pretty soon, when we get the chance to talk and meet as a team we'll look back at things and I'm pretty sure I'll have a smile on my face. Just about every goal we set out for we achieved. I thought we represented the school and community in a good way. I hope they're proud of us.
"Not only that, we showed on the national stage that Mississippi teams and kids can play and we deserve to be here."
SLOW FIRST HALF
Pearl River (26-4 overall) led by three in the first two minutes of the contest before Odessa (28-6) began capitalizing on Wildcat turnovers and built a 22-point advantage four minutes into the second half. The Wranglers ended up scoring 27 points off 18 turnovers.
"I said before the game I didn't think we had to play our best basketball to beat this team. I thought we had to play our smartest basketball to win the game," Oney said. "We went into half and had given up 35 points with 17 off live ball turnovers. That was exactly what we said we couldn't do. Credit to them. They're a good ball club.
"They came out, did exactly what we knew they would do, we just didn't execute."
While Pearl River was down big, the Wildcats were never fully out of the contest — especially with a long-range specialist like LaGarious White (Brandon; Ridgeland) running the floor. For the second night in a row, the sharpshooter gave the Wildcats the jolt they needed.
White hit a 3 early in the second half to bring PRCC within 19 at 46-27. Consecutive 3s from Fred Thompson (Biloxi), White and Cedric Brim Jr. (Tupelo; Shannon), pulled the Wildcats within 13 at 49-36 with 13:37 left to play.
"He played his tail off," Oney said of White. "I'm proud of him. He gave us what we needed like he has done all year."
Pearl River continued to chip away at Odessa's lead and before long had the Wranglers' advantage under double digits. Another 3-pointer from White with 3:51 brought PRCC within 10 for the first time since the first half at 63-53 and jumpstarted a 9-2 run. During the run, Brim hit a jumper in the lane and then scored after Kirk Parker (Vicksburg) kept a possession alive by batting a miss to Brim on the perimeter to bring the score to 63-57.
"He fought hard," Oney said of Brim. "He's another one of those kids where if it wasn't for what he's done we wouldn't be here."
The Wranglers made just enough free throws down the stretch to keep Pearl River from making the game a one-shot contest.
"I was confident in my team that we could come back, we just dug ourselves in a hole in the beginning and ran out of time to fully dig ourselves out," Brandon Rachal said. "There was no quit in us at all."
Following the game, White fought to contain his emotions after leading Pearl River with 17 points, scoring 15 on 5 of 7 shooting from 3-point range.
"It was the best. I'm in tears right now because I don't want it to be over yet," he said. "It hurts. I'll remember this season forever. For the rest of my life.
"I'll never forget this."
Rachal, who was second on the team with 15 points and eight rebounds, echoed White's sentiments.
"It's been a long year, a successful year. We made history. We fought all season. I wouldn't trade this team for nothing in the world," Rachal said. "It didn't end how we wanted, but it was a great season and hopefully we set a standard for the teams in the years to come."
LEADING THE WAY
In addition to White and Rachal, Brim and Parker scored nine points apiece. Parker led PRCC with nine rebounds; Chris Agbo (Jos, Nigeria) added six. Brim led PRCC with five assists. Jonas James III (Jackson; Murrah) was second with four.
Although Wednesday's loss will undoubtedly linger in the Wildcats' minds, they're already thinking about an encore to what became an unforgettable 2018-19 season.
"Now the new goal is to make it here and win at least two games," Oney said.