ELLISVILLE, Miss. — No. 5 Pearl River entered Monday night's annual "Cat Fight" expecting a dog fight.
The Wildcats ultimately got that and more in their 59-55 victory inside of A.B. Howard Gymnasium.
"We found a way," Pearl River coach Chris Oney said.
A year ago, PRCC was the last undefeated team in the country when Jones snapped the Wildcats' streak at 18 games in Ellisville. In that contest, it was a lightly used freshman named Cameron Smith (Okolona) who made two key free throws to cap a late comeback, force overtime and give the Wildcats hope.
Now an upperclassman and leader for the Wildcats (11-0 overall, 3-0 MACJC South), Smith once again emerged when his team needed him most.
Trailing 47-45 with 7:35 remaining, it was Smith who drew the fifth and final foul on Jones' leading scorer — and then made both shots to tie the contest.
Just over two minutes later, Jaronn Wilkens (Biloxi) stole the ball from a sprawling Bobcat and sent Smith in alone on the goal with a home run pass. The Okolona native threw down the dunk with authority to put PRCC 51-49 — but he wasn't done there.
Following an acrobatic make by Tae Hardy (Ellenwood, Ga.; Believe Prep) plus a converted and-one free throw that pushed PRCC ahead 54-49, Smith scored the ultimate go-ahead basket. After several Wildcats failed to convert a shot with 3:09 remaining, Smith fought through a crowd and converted the put-back for the 56-53 lead.
"These are the kinds of games where you get to have heroic moments and make a name for yourself," Oney said of Smith, who led PRCC with 13 points and 10 rebounds. "I'm excited for him. He works his tail off and is an outstanding young man."
The game wasn't put on ice just yet as JC (9-2, 1-2) made another late push.
With PRCC clinging to a 57-55 advantage following an Earl Smith (Jackson; Lanier) free throw, the Bobcats flashed to the goal with 16 seconds remaining only to see Isaih Moore block the shot off the glass from behind and then cradle the rebound.
Although free throws were PRCC's Achilles heel all night, Hardy made both freebies with four seconds remaining to seal the victory.
"I almost took him out because they were small and I kind of wanted to go with guards, but then I thought we probably needed to leave him in for his length and look at that," Oney said of Moore. "A superstar made a superstar play."
ROOM TO GROW
Pearl River hadn't previously faced a challenge like Monday, but the Wildcats still found a way to win. Oney said those victories are often the ones with staying power.
"It's always good to win those kind of games when you can also have a teaching point," he said. "When you have a team that's been playing the way this team has been playing, it's very difficult as a coach to tinker with a lot of things. There were some things in practice leading up to this game that I wasn't too thrilled about; one of them being at the end of practice when I say let's shoot free throws and everyone has to start a conversation.
"Now, I can go into the locker room and I'll be able to bring up that point and the guys will understand and still be in a good mood because we won. As a coach you love it ending up happening how it happened."
Smith was PRCC's lone scorer in double figures. Wilkins finished second on the team with nine points. Kelvin Allen (Olive Branch) and Moore both scored eight points, while Rodgerick Brown (Memphis, Tenn.; Cordova) and Hardy finished with seven and six points respectively.
Pearl River fell one spot to No. 5 in the latest NJCAA rankings despite being the only D1 team in the country that's ranked in the top 10 in both points per game and scoring defense; PRCC entered the week sixth in scoring (99.5 ppg) and first in defense, holding opponents to just 57.1 ppg.
WILDCATS OF THE WEEK
Moore was one of the latest Forrest General Wildcats of the Week. The 6-foot-11 forward scorAed 47 points as PRCC swept the week's competition, defeating Delgado 95-50 and East Central 100-64.
The Wildcats are back at it on Thursday when they host Hinds. Opening tip is set for 7:30 p.m.
"When people talk in the barber shop around the state about JUCO basketball, Hinds is a team that always comes up," Oney said.
HOW TO TUNE IN
All home events are broadcast on PRCCAthletics.com and PRCCMedia.com. Anyone who has an Amazon Fire or Roku device can stream PRCC broadcasts by downloading the "Pearl River CC" Channel from the app store.