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MERIDIAN – If any men’s team has ever gone undefeated through the Mississippi junior college basketball season, nobody can seem to remember it. Even Jay Ladner’s 2013-14 Jones Junior College team, the first Magnolia State team to ever win the national championship, lost three times to in-state rivals in the regular season.
“It would be nearly impossible to run the table in that league,” said Ladner, now the coach at Southeastern Louisiana. “The competition is too good. The coaching is too good. It’s just too hard to win on the road.”
Pearl River Community College, located in Poplarville, has streaked to a 16-0 start – 7-0 in league play – and might just have the manpower to do the nearly impossible. If so, the Wildcats will never come closer to losing than they did Monday night at Meridian Community College, where they overcame a five-point deficit in the last 60 seconds to escape with a 62-61 victory.
“Our guys made the plays when we really needed them,” said Pearl River coach Chris Oney, the former Ole Miss Rebel. “I’m proud of them. It wasn’t our best game but all I know is we scored one more point than they did. This is a tough place to play and they are really, really well-coached.”
The Meridian Eagles surely are that. They are coached by James Green, the former Ole Miss player and Southern Miss and Mississippi Valley State coach who once guided USM to a Conference USA championship in a league that included Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Marquette and DePaul, among others.
Green will tell you he believes Oney has the talent to become the second Mississippi team to win the national championship at Hutchinson, Kan.
“They are really talented, really deep, I’m talking 11 or 12 deep,” Green said. “We recruited Kirk Parker out of Vicksburg and he would be a star for us. He doesn’t even play that much for them.”
Parker, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound forward, averages 2.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in limited playing time for the Wildcats. And get this: He has already signed with Southern University.
Oney has a roster of 13 players, and probably eight will go on to play Division I basketball. All probably will get a chance to play ball at four-year schools.
“Everybody on our bench can help us win games,” is the way Oney put it.
No doubt, the highest profile player is Brandon Rachal, a 6-6 guard-forward from Natchitoches, La., who last season averaged 4.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16 minutes a game for LSU. Mississippi State fans may remember him. He scored 10 points against the Bulldogs in an SEC Tournament game last March.
Rachal, a four-star recruit out of high school, a Top 50 player nationally and the MVP of the Louisiana state championship tournament, averages 14.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game and is drawing interest from any number of Division I schools. No, he answered, he has no favorite at the moment.
“I’m just focusing on this team right here right now,” Rachal said. “We want to go as far as we can go.”
“No,” he answered again, he has not had trouble adjusting to the juco level after playing in the SEC last season.
“Not at all,” he said, “I just love playing basketball, and this is good basketball. For me, it’s just a privilege to play basketball anywhere, any time.”
At Meridian, Rachal scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on what, for him, was an off night, shooting-wise.
A lot of the blame for that goes to Green’s Meridian Eagles who defended extremely well, mixing both man-to-man and zone defenses. They held a team that averages 93 points a game to just 62.
“I did think we guarded hard and controlled the tempo for the most part,” Green said. “But Chris (Oney) does a great job. We didn’t quite do enough.”
Junior college basketball might be Mississippi’s best-kept secret. The talent level is high. The gymnasiums are often full. The coaching is top-shelf.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this league have as many D-I type players as there are in it now,” said Green, who has recruited Mississippi’s junior college circuit for more than 25 years as a collegiate assistant and head coach. “There are an awful lot of players who have a chance to move on and play.”
Pearl River has more high-calibre players than anyone else, Green said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Wildcats can win all their conference games.
“It’s tough,” he said. “There are some hard, hard places to play.”
Pearl River, the state’s only nationally ranked team at No. 9, still has to play at Co-Lin, at Jones and at Southwest. None of those will be easy. The Wildcats have home games left with East Central, Hinds, Gulf Coast and Meridian. They are 7-0 in the league with seven left to play.
“Nobody’s ever done it,” Oney said. “We’d love to be the first.”
Oney smiled. “I’ll tell you this, I don’t ever want to lose,” he said. “But if I was going to lose, I wouldn’t mind it being to James Green. He got me my first job right out of Ole Miss. He got me a job as an assistant at Nicholls State. I’ll always owe him for that – but I’m glad we didn’t pay him back tonight.”