POPLARVILLE A year ago, the Pearl River Community College Wildcats were prepping for the second half of their basketball season with a lackluster 6-4 overall mark that included back-to-back losses that opened their MACJC South Division schedule.At the time, they were unknowingly on the verge of kicking off an amazing 18-game winning streak that would eventually include a state championship the fifth since head coach Richard Mathis has headed the program.PRCC rang in the new year with a 60-49 victory over the Loyola (La.) University junior varsity and the amazing run didnt stop until Itawamba ended The River season a couple of months later with a 73-65 setback in the Region 23 Tournament at Mississippi College in Clinton.Twelve months later, the Wildcats enter this year second half under very different circumstances with a No. 8 national ranking in the NJCAA men Division I hoops poll behind an unblemished 10-0 record.”You have to be realistic…the odds are against us to keep an undefeated streak going, but it nice to be at this point,” said Mathis, who amidst his 20th year at The River. “Weve had a lot of success over the years here, but being ranked as high as we are in the poll is something that never happened before.”For a program to be 28-1 over the last 12 months is really hard to believe, particularly as difficult as it is to win in our league.”Mathis quickly admits his team has been lucky.”Weve won games this year when we didnt play well at all,” he said. “We were very fortunate to pull off our 82-72 (in overtime) win over Co-Lin in our division opener before Christmas, but we played exceptionally well in the (20-10) overtime period. If wed played that way in the first 40 minutes of the game, it never wouldve went into OT.”Troy University signee Emil Jones drew Mathis praise as the Wildcats most consistent player. A sophomore forward who prepped at North Forrest High near Hattiesburg, Jones was instrumental in the Copiah-Lincoln victory, accounting for 11 of PRCC 20 points in the OT period and finished the night with 31 points and 18 rebounds both career-high marks. He averages 18.3 points and 9.1 boards both team-high totals a game thus far.”Emil has great athletic skills and always shows up ready to go every game,” Mathis said. “He been lucky in regards to injuries, but he played when he wasnt 100 percent. A few weeks back he took the court with a stomach virus after we thought he would have to sit it out.”Mathis says his current unit is a better shooting team compared to last year, but lacks the defensive power of a year ago.”Weve got to get better on the defensive side,” he said. “We dont rebound as well as we did a year ago, even though weve got better shooters. But in this league, youve got to play solid defense.”After we play Delgado (La., to open the new year), we go up to (Mississippi) Delta, which is one of the best teams in the North. Then we start a string of 11 straight division games to wrap the regular season,” Mathis continued. “Those (division games) are the ones that count. We cant get all wrapped up in the fact were nationally ranked and undefeated. All that kind of stuff does it put a big target on your backs.”Youve got to show up every night and win your division games or youll be sitting at home when the post-season rolls around.”Mobile, Ala., recruits Phillip Crawford, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward-center out of Murphy High, and Kentari (KT) Nettles, a 6-foot-9 freshman center out of LeFlore High, also drew praise.”If we could get those two guys to play well at the same time, wed be practically unstoppable,” Mathis added. “It seems like one will bring it one night and the other will bring it another night. Regardless, were fortunate to have them and theyve been big contributors.”Crawford, who averages 15.8 points and 6.7 rebounds a game, scored 25 points in each of the Wildcats wins over Baton Rouge (La.) and Mississippi Delta. Nettles, on the other hand, averages 9 points and 5.4 boards a night, but boasted a 25-point, 13-rebound outing in PRCC last game against Delgado and put up 21 in the season opener against Southern Sports Academy.Mathis also cited sophomore forward LaKendrick Maye of Prentiss High. Maye, who has been hampered by off-season foot surgery, scored a career-high 20 points in the Delgado win.A huge key to the Wildcats success has come from point guard Pedro Maciel, a sophomore transfer from Centenary (La.) University who prepped at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis.”Pedro has been as solid,” Mathis added. “He wont put up a lot of baskets (4.3 ppg), but he averaging 6.5 assists and had 10 (assists) in our win over Delgado.”Mathis says he expects more point production from Maciel due to the improved play of freshman point guards Vincent Gable of Picayune High and Marshun McGee out of Bailey High in Jackson.”When we put Vincent or Marshun in there, Pedro can move to the shooting guard spot,” he said. “I expect Pedro will wind up being a much more versatile offensive contributor the second half of the year.”Nick Magee, a 6-foot-5 freshman guard-forward out of Columbia High, has been struggling to fully recover from a turned ankle five games into the season, can be an impact player.”Nick started off the year well before he was injured,” Mathis added. “If he can get back to 100 percent, he can be as good as anybody. It been a slow recovery period, but I expect him to be a big contributor before the year is over.”MHSAA Class 4A Player of the Year Daron Bell, a freshman guard from Bay High, has been averaging 13.7 points a game, but lacks effort, says Mathis.”Daron has the talent and skill to be as good as anybody in the entire league, but we dont get the effort he capable of on a nightly basis,” he said. “But when he shows up and plays up to his ability, he an impact guy.”Mathis also lauded the likes for freshmen guards Adarrius Hunter of Petal High, Calvin Johnson of Ridgeland High, and LaBaron McMillian of Pascagoula High.”Theyre freshmen who make freshman mistakes, but that to be expected,” he said. “Theyve got the needed skills, but they have to continue to work hard and improve their games. If they can do that, theyll wind up really helping us.”Pearl River rematch with Delgado is set for Monday in New Orleans with game times at 2 p.m. (women) and 4 p.m. (men), while the road trip to Mississippi Delta is set for Thursday, Jan. 6, with tip off times at 5 p.m. (women) and 7 p.m. (men) contests. South Division rival Southwest Mississippi plays host Monday, Jan. 10, in Summit at 5 p.m. (women) and 7 p.m. (men).The MACJC State Tournament, which includes the top four men and women finishers from each division, is set for Feb. 21-24; while the Region 23 Tournament is set for the following week at Mississippi College in Clinton.
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