POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Tae Hardy (Ellenwood, Ga.; Believe Prep) has scored in double figures in every game he has appeared in for Pearl River except two. Those two came at Jones on Jan. 13 and then No. 2 Pearl River's last outing, a narrow two-point win at East Central.
Powered by plenty of motivation — both externally and internally – the Wildcats' leading scorer made sure Thursday's 'Cat Fight' against Jones College was one to remember.
The new Southern Miss commitment made the most of his opportunity, coming up big when the Wildcats needed him most and powering Pearl River to a 74-66 victory inside Marvin R. White Coliseum.
The win was Pearl River's 18th straight to start the season, tying the program record that was set last season.
"He was ready to play. He was ready to get back on the court ever since we left East Central. The way he played over at East Central —not to mention he didn't play well at Jones and that's the film we watched — so he was ready to get back on the court and redeem himself," Pearl River coach Chris Oney said. "I think he got a lot of weight lifted off his shoulders with his decision to go right down the road and play basketball. I'm happy for him and proud of him."
Despite a couple highlight reel dunks early from Isaih Moore (Columbia, S.C.; Sumter) and Jariyon Wilkens (Biloxi), the Wildcats (18-0 overall, 10-0 MACJC) didn't overtake the Bobcats (13-5, 5-5) for good until Moore's and-one, which gave PRCC an 11-10 lead at the 13:21 mark.
A smooth 3-pointer from Kelvin Allen (Olive Branch) pushed PRCC ahead 14-10 and forced JC to call a timeout.
While the Wildcats never trailed again in the contest, JC made the reigning Region XXIII Champs work.
Jones tied the game at 15-15 before PRCC ripped off a remarkable 16-4 run to jump ahead 31-19. The streak featured a coast-to-coast slam from Hardy and another rim rocker from Moore.
The momentum seemed to shift from there, however, and Pearl River took a 35-30 lead into halftime.
"I thought we had the game in hand. Even in the first half we were up 31-19, but we tried to make a few plays that we have to talk about," Oney said. "I love those plays, but when they don't work and gives the other team momentum, I don't like them as much.
"I'm proud we hung in there and got stops when we needed them."
Pearl River flew out of the break. Hardy hit a 3-pointer off of a Cameron Smith (Okolona) assist to spark an 11-2 run for a 46-32 lead.
"In the second half, we talked about not taking as many chances," Oney said. "All we were getting out of the press was bad stuff and easy baskets behind us, so I just said let's just stay down and guard and give them a chance to make mistakes.
"That's what we did and lo and behold, we were able to get our hands on some balls, get out and make some dunks."
Two minutes later Smith swiped a ball from the Bobcats and hit Rodgerick Brown (Memphis, Tenn.; Cordova) with a long outlet pass. The recent Tulsa commit lobbed the ball up to Moore and the St. John's signee slammed it home for the ally-oop basket and 49-36 lead. A Brown and-one soon after extended PRCC's lead to 52-36.
Once again Jones made a run, cutting PRCC's lead to 55-53. That's when the nation's leading scoring defense clamped down and both Hardy and Moore took over on the opposite end of the court.
Two Moore dunks were sandwiched around a Hardy fadeaway at 6:40 that gave PRCC a 61-53 lead.
At various times this season free throws have made Oney want to pull out his hair, but Thursday night the Wildcats made 11 of their final 12 freebies down the stretch — with six courtesy of Hardy
"Coach emphasizes that we have to take our time shooting free throws and at the end of the day we can't panic," Hardy said.
"We made free throws when we needed to make free throws — how 'bout that?" Oney joked.
The run was punctuated at the end when Hardy dashed across midcourt to narrowly beat the count and then hit a long 3 in front of the PRCC bench to ignite the gymnasium.
"That last shot, I couldn't think of a play to call so I just told him to shoot it," Oney said. "He jumped up, stepped back, made it and made us both look like heroes."
With the final seconds running of the clock Moore turned in perhaps the highlight of the night with a runaway windmill dunk. Smith hit Moore with a home run pass on the in-bounds and Moore used all of his 6-foot-10 frame to punctuate the Wildcats' rivalry win.
"That was a little too much fun, wasn't it?" Oney said of the win. "It was everything that as a fan and spectator that you want in a rivalry."
Moore led the Wildcats on the statsheet Thursday, scoring a team-high 23 points with 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. He added four blocks. Hardy scored 20 points on the night with three assists and three steals.
Brown chipped in 13 points, while Smith pulled in 10 rebounds. Wilkens led PRCC with five assists.
TO THE TOP
Wednesday night Hardy announced his verbal commitment to nearby Southern Miss.
Entering Thursday night's contest Hardy was leading PRCC in scoring, averaging 17 points per game. He also leads the team in assists (3.8) and steals (3.4).
Hardy also gets it done in the classroom. Last semester he earned a spot on PRCC's President's List with a 4.0.
The Wildcats will hit the road next week, visiting Hinds on Monday and then traveling to Gulf Coast on Thursday. Both doubleheaders will start at 5:30 p.m.
"Hinds is playing a lot better since they left here so they're going to be a challenge and Gulf Coast is right on the brink of the third and fourth spot so they're going to be fighting for playoff positioning," Oney said. "On top of all of that we'll probably go over there still ranked No. 2 in the country."
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. Conference games can also be heard on WRJW 1320 AM, WRJWRadio.com or by downloading the WRJW app.