PERKINSTON, Miss. — Pearl River coach Scotty Fletcher didn't shy away from the importance of Thursday's game at rival Gulf Coast. While the Wildcats maybe didn't have to win, they needed the win.
His Wildcats rose to the challenge, edging Gulf Coast 57-56 inside the Weathers-Wentzell Center.
The win not only avenged a one-point loss earlier in the season to MGCCC, but it marked Pearl River's third straight victory inside Gulf Coast's gym.
"Well I don't know if this'll be a good interview or not because I'm pretty emotional," an overwhelmed coach Scotty Fletcher said. "Man, I'm sorry I'm emotional. You ask these kids to buy in. I can never put in words what this place and these girls mean to me. I just know how hard they've worked all the things we ask them to do; when you see a group of kids who buy in to everything. There's so many things that go into making a program."
Fletcher felt like his team learned from the earlier rivalry game in Poplarville, a 56-55 loss.
"It was fortunate that we made some plays and showed some maturity down the stretch," he said. "It feels good to be on the other side of this. I just had to keep pumping them up. I thought Meah Monroe played great. When you see kids like them buy in and don't quit, they're supposed to have nights like this."
The Wildcats (13-8 overall; 6-6 MACJC) and Bulldogs (15-5; 7-5) had a back-and-forth first half with points at a premium.
PRCC's offense through the first 20 minutes was aided by four 3-pointers.
Mychala "Pooh" Linzy (Clinton) opened the game's scoring with a 3-pointer. Following a Meah Monroe (Reserve, La.; East St. John) jumper, Otashae Burrage (Carthage; Leake County) knocked down a long-range shot to extend the visitors' lead to 8-4.
Gulf Coast tied the game, but not for long. Alanna Turner (Gulfport; West Harrison) hit a jumper and then Olivia Mosley (Pearl) made one of two free throws to help PRCC take a 13-12 lead into the first stoppage.
After Gulf Coast made the opening basket of the second quarter, Alanna Smith (Picayune) made a 3-pointer and Jakia Harper (Jackson; Provine) knocked down a shot from above the free throw line to push PRCC back ahead 18-16.
Smith made both free throws and Monroe hit a jumper from the corner to go back ahead 23-18.
After four straight from MGCCC, PRCC closed the half with five unanswered points on a Maliyah Bullard (Pass Christian) 3-pointer and two free throws from Linzy.
PRCC's 27-22 halftime lead was its greatest advantage through two quarters.
The game didn't loosen up any in the second half. If anything it tightened. MGCCC opened the third on a 6-2 run to go ahead 36-31.
PRCC responded with a 7-3 run of its own to pull within one, 39-38, thanks to a Smith 3 and four points from Monroe on a jumper and two free throws.
The two teams went into the final frame with MGCCC leading 41-39, setting up a thrilling finish for the Wildcats.
Playing from behind for much of the final frame, PRCC closed the gap in the final minutes.
Behind MGCCC 51-45, Smith hit a 3 and then Shania Wright (Clinton) scored on a putback to pull within one. After trading baskets, Smith stole the ball at the top of the arc and dashed down the court for a breakaway layup and a 54-53 lead at the 2:30 mark.
A Smith jumper 90 seconds later pushed PRCC ahead 56-53. Gulf Coast responded with a 3-pointer with about 20 seconds remaining.
With time rapidly running out, Linzy raced around a screen and was fouled trying a desperation shot in the lane.
The sophomore made her first of two free throw attempts with 2.2 seconds remaining and the Wildcats held on to force a Gulf Coast (15-4, 7-4) miss as time expired for the emotional victory.
"I think they thought we were going to play zone and we played man for 90 percent of the game," Fletcher said. "This was a total team win. Our bench energy was good. Those 11-for-13 from the free throw line was huge and we didn't foul late in the fourth quarter."
With the win, Pearl River remains in the playoff hunt as they're tied with Copiah-Lincoln for fourth in the MACJC South. The Wildcats are looking to make the postseason for a second consecutive season under Fletcher's guidance.
"I'm going to tell the girls this is probably our biggest win in our five years here. The reason being is we had to have this to keep playoff hopes alive and we went and took it," Fletcher said. "And what about these fans hollering defense back there — we were louder then Gulf Coast's fans."
Fletcher's bit of motivation pre-game hit home post-game.
"It's from Zig Ziglar: 'If you're not willing to learn nobody can help you but if you're determined to learn nobody can stop you.' That's what I told them. If we're determined to be coachable and rebound and go after loose balls nobody can stop us.
"I thought our girls were extremely locked in. I kept telling them every timeout we're going win this game and shoot it better. I just told them they had to keep believing."
Smith continued to fire a hot hand Thursday, leading the Wildcats with 18 points. She also dished out three assists.
Monroe and Linzy tied for second on the team with 10 points.
The Wildcats will return to Marvin R. White Coliseum on Monday to host Southwest for Sophomore Night. PRCC then closes out the regular season Thursday at Meridian. Both doubleheaders will start at 5:30 p.m.
The postseason begins Monday, Feb. 24 with the MACJC Tournament, which is hosted by the winner of the MACJC's women's North Division.
The Region XXIII Tournament is set to start March 3 in Clinton at Mississippi College, while the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas will start March 16.
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.