POPLARVILLE, Miss. (WDAM) - It’s a question we may never know the answer to. How good was the 2019-20 Pearl River basketball team?
The team that emerged from a 22-game regular season, Mississippi Association of Community & Junior Colleges Tournament and Region 23 Tournament with a perfect 28-0 record. The team that was preparing for the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
After the NJCAA cancelled all spring sports competition on Monday with the worldwide threat of the Coronavirus ever-growing, the Wildcats were robbed of an opportunity to showcase the MACJC’s first undefeated team in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“I think a lot of people, not only us, were kind of looking forward to seeing us show what we can do on the national stage,” said PRCC head coach Chris Oney. “I think finally we had the team that was built to go out there and look just like the teams that were out there. I feel like we’re the national champions even though we didn’t have a chance to get out there and win four games.”
Where the Wildcats stack up with the rest of the country is left up to conjecture. However, folks around the Magnolia State know just how relentless Pearl River played basketball this season.
While its average margin of victory was 25 points, PRCC had to grind out several wins to fulfill an unblemished season.
Seven of the Wildcats’ 28 wins were decided by eight points or less – three of those against rival Jones College.
“Toughness and togetherness,” Oney said. “We were able to stick together in moments where a lot of teams would’ve folded. None of the guys ever tried to play hero basketball when we were down. We just kind of took a timeout, everybody looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, let’s go get three stops in a row and see what happens.’”
The defensive end is where Pearl River’s success began and ended. Oney’s club yielded just 60.4 points per game to opponents, which ranked second among NJCAA Division I teams.
The Wildcats turned that defense into an unselfish style of offense. Five players averaged at least 7.9 points, led by Tae Hardy’s 16.6 points per game.
“Before the season started we just had to look ourselves in the mirror and see what type of season we wanted to have,” said Hardy, a Southern Miss commit. “Did we want to win or did we just want to get our stats or something like that? We realized that if we just bought into winning, everything else was going to come into play. It did take a lot of sacrifice in order to become this successful.”
“We had the perfect mixture of guys,” Oney said. “We had a bunch of guys that were selfless. We had guys that had something to prove. They all respected one another’s ability of what they could do on the court. They didn’t really care who got the spotlight.”
In turn, Poplarville got the spotlight for four winter months.
PRCC is beginning to see the fruits of its labor in four seasons under Oney – the school’s first NJCAA Tournament appearance last year followed up by a school-record rise to No. 2 in the national rankings.
And while it’s easy to think about what could have been this season, Oney prefers to look at what lies ahead.
“Everything we set out for this program to reach, we’ve just about hit it,” Oney said. “One thing that was left was obviously those next four games that we would’ve been playing this week. I’m sure one day when it’s all over and I’m done blowing whistles, I’ll look back on this year and realize just how special it was.”