MERIDIAN, Miss. — Pearl River coach Chris Oney gathered up his players in the locker room and asked them if they remembered the summer and the workouts on the new turf field in the Mississippi heat.
Several leapt into action, as if they were back inside Dobie Holden Stadium flipping tires.
"All that was worth it," he said Thursday night, minutes after the No. 2 Wildcats knocked off Meridian 81-74 to record the conference's first undefeated regular season since the 1980s.
As the final buzzer sounded, managers handed out custom made t-shirts that read 22-0 to commemorate the occasion. In the locker room, several players pop the gold lettering on the special black shirts.
"Now, all you get for going 22-0 is that t-shirt," Oney said. "To get a ring, we have to win this other thing, we have to do this other deal."
Just to remain undefeated was an accomplishment, especially down the stretch of the Wildcats' schedule when PRCC was in one battle after another with teams trying to be the first to knock off the mighty Wildcats (22-0 overall, 14-0 MACJC South) and tarnish their record.
"We talked about these last three games being our region finals so let's approach it like that," he said. "I think all three of those games are similar to what we're going to face so we just need to be ready to go."
Meridian (9-14, 4-10) actually took the game to PRCC in the opening minutes, jumping out to a 13-5 lead before Oney called a timeout with 12 minutes remaining in the half.
The pep talk did the trick and PRCC reeled off 10 straight points to jump ahead 15-13.
Tulsa commit Rodgerick Brown (Memphis, Tenn.; Cordova) was the catalyst for the run, scoring the first six points on two free throws, an alley-oop served up from Cameron Smith (Okolona) and a layup on a court-length pass from Smith.
The Wildcats never relinquished their lead, but MCC made PRCC work.
"Meridian made some big shots. They made some big shots when they had to," Oney said. "Coach James Green had them ready to fight but my guys persevered and made the tough plays when they had to."
After MCC converted a free throw, the Wildcats went on another run, outscoring the Eagles 10-2 for a 25-16 lead. Jariyon Wilkens (Biloxi) made a long jumper followed by six points from Moore on two free throws, a bucket under the basket and a thunderous dunk off a pass Earl Smith zipped through the teeth of MCC's defense.
MCC pulled within three but Tae Hardy (Ellenwood, Ga.; Believe Prep) slashed through the lane for a layup and converted two free throws and then Cameron Smith hit a basket to extend the Wildcats' lead back out to 33-24.
Both teams traded shots down the stretch with PRCC holding s 41-32 halftime advantage.
The second half played out similar to the first, with PRCC building a lead only to see Meridian keep within striking distance. Hardy sank a baseline jumper and then Cameron Smith stole the ball while in the full court press and with his next burst of energy threw the ball through the cylinder for a 49-36 lead — PRCC's largest of the contest.
Free throws and 3-pointers helped keep MCC in the contest. Following one long-range shot, Oney called timeout with 8:33 left. The Wildcats came out of the break determined to not let their lead slip away.
Hardy drove through the lane and converted an and-one and then Moore converted two free throws to extend PRCC's lead back out to 68-59 with 6:11 remaining.
The Eagles converted three free throws and then nailed another 3-pointer to stay within five, 70-65, but Hardy answered the call once again. The Southern Miss commit caught a pass from Earl Smith, stepped up and hit a long two-pointer. Moments later, Hardy dashed through the lane for another acrobatic layup and a 72-65 lead.
Clinging to a 78-74 lead, Hardy made two free throws, Cameron Smith made another and the Wildcats got a big stop just before the final siren to seal the win.
"The run we're having with this team, this bunch, this program, this school it's incredible," Oney said. "I try not to think about it a lot but riding up here I thought about that and I had to pull it together because I knew this was going to be a tough game.
"These are some of the moments I wish would never end because I feel like I'm living some of my best days as a coach."
Hardy led the Wildcats on the night with 24 points. Moore finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. Brown added 15 points, while both Jaronn Wilkens (Biloxi) and Cameron Smith scored nine.
Pearl River already clinched the top spot in the MACJC Tournament and will open at 3 p.m. Monday against Itawamba in Scooba.
HOW TO TUNE IN
All MACJC and Region XXIII tournament games will be livestreamed on 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. Games can also be heard on WRJW 1320 AM, WRJWRadio.com or by downloading the WRJW app.