POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Both Pearl River basketball teams feel like they have been playing playoff basketball for weeks — only now it's for real.
For No. 2 Pearl River (22-0 overall, 14-0 MACJC South), an emphasis down the stretch was keeping an unblemished record to secure the program's first undefeated regular season.
Pearl River's women's basketball team (15-8, 8-6), meanwhile, have been playing must-win basketball for a couple weeks now.
As it turns out, both teams will face Itawamba when the MACJC Tournament opens Monday at East Mississippi in Scooba. The men long ago secured the top spot in the tournament and will face ICC (9-13, 5-7) at 3 p.m. Monday. PRCC's women will face ICC (17-5, 9-3) at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The winner of the women's game will play the winner of Jones College (19-3, 13-1) and Northwest (15-8, 7-5) at 1 p.m. Wednesday. The winner of the men's game will play the winner of East Mississippi (16-7) and Jones College (17-5, 9-5) at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
The championship games will be at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Women's coach Scotty Fletcher is proud of how his Wildcats battled through a treacherous MACJC schedule to ensure their season wouldn't end with Thursday's regular season finale at Meridian.
"When you look at where we were four games ago at 4-6 and clearly in fifth place, what they did is remarkable," he said. "We could have easily dropped our heads after the tough week where we lost to Gulf Coast and at Southwest, but then we won the next two; then we lost at East Central and to Jones College. That was a crucial stretch.
"We didn't drop our heads and fold and that's why we're going into the postseason."
With their backs against the wall, PRCC won four games in succession — at Hinds and rival Gulf Coast, and then against Southwest and at MCC last night.
"I couldn't be more excited for our institution and our girls. I'm very thankful for our coaches and what they bring every day," Fletcher said. "I think if anything it embodies what our culture is about and what we've tried to build from day 1, which is a solid foundation.
"We had to win all four of these. Our girls responded. That's a credit to them."
Now the Wildcats face an ICC team that ended their MACJC Tournament a year ago.
"They're extremely talented," Fletcher said. "They have great guard play and they're strong in the post. They finished second in the North this year and they're year in and year out the standard in the north.
"They're going to be a very balanced team."
The Wildcats head into the postseason with two players averaging double-digits. Mychala "Pooh" Linzy (Clinton) leads the squad in scoring, averaging 13.1 points per game, while Alanna Smith (Picayune) isn't far behind, scoring at an 11.9 clip.
Even one day later, what the PRCC men accomplished hadn't quite hit home for head coach Chris Oney.
"You set out to try and put your best foot forward but you never think you can make it to the end of the regular season," he said. "It's something that didn't really become a reality until the buzzer went off last night.
"We understand we still have main goals we set at the beginning of the season that are still ahead of us."
With the 22-0 record now in their rearview mirror, PRCC's men can now turn their attention to the post-season, where every game is win or go home.
The Wildcats are no strangers to postseason success. Two years ago, the Wildcats won the MACJC Tournament. Last year, PRCC fell to East Mississippi in the second round but went on to claim the Region XXIII title the next weekend to clinch their first trip to the NJCAA Tournament in program history.
Now they'll face an Itawamba team that made it into the post-season despite being below .500 and dropping their final two games.
Despite the Indians' record, Oney said his Wildcats will need to come prepared to play Monday.
"It's a playoff game. You don't make the playoffs unless you're worthy," he said. "They're going to come in and try to continue playing on and the only way to do that is score more points than us Monday. They're well coached. Their coach has won a lot of games and he knows how to win a state championship.
"We're going to have to make sure we're well rested and prepared mentally to go Monday."
Three Wildcats are scoring in double figures with a fourth not far behind.
Tae Hardy (Ellenwood, Ga.; Believe Prep) and Isaih Moore (Columbia, S.C.; Sumter) are actually tied for the team lead, averaging 16.5 ppg. Rodgerick Brown (Memphis, Tenn.; Cordova) is averaging 12.3 ppg, while Kelvin Allen is scoring at a 9.4 ppg clip.
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.