Tae Hardy is a prototypical, pass-first point guard but he can shoot it and dunk it, as well.

UTICA – For Pearl River Community College’s undefeated basketball Wildcats, ranked No. 2 in the nation, it’s now 19 down and three to go.

Monday night’s 64-55 road victory over Hinds, a good team playing well, lifted PRCC to 19-0 and clinched the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) South Division title. The Wildcats are in unchartered territory now, bidding to become the first team in school history – and in recent MACJC history – to go through the regular season undefeated.

Rick Cleveland

Who would have thought it? Five of the players who led Pearl River to the national juco Sweet 16 last season moved on to NCAA Division I basketball this season. Rebuilding? No, Coach Chris Oney reloaded, replacing all but two two players who were key players on that team.

These talented Wildcats allow only 58 points per game, best in the nation. They aren’t bad offensively either, averaging 89 points a game. That’s an average victory margin of 31 per game, if you are keeping score.

Obviously, Oney, a former Ole Miss Rebel player, can recruit. It is becoming increasingly obvious he can also coach.

“It starts with defense,” said Oney, a Louisiana native, who played sparingly under Rob Evans and Rod Barnes (1995-98). “We’re really, really good defensively.”

Once again, Oney will be sending several players to D-I. You ask me, it all starts with point guard Tae Hardy, once the Georgia Class 5A player of the year, who earlier this week committed to Southern Miss and will be a huge piece of the puzzle Jay Ladner is trying to solve there.

Hardy was a part-time starter for East Carolina in the American Athletic Conference last season, entered the transfer portal and wound up at PRCC. He leads the Wildcats in scoring with 16 points per game, but his value goes far, far beyond that. He is his team’s quarterback and leader, a steadying force who gets the ball where it needs to go – always in a timely, fundamentally sound fashion. He’s not flashy, just solid.

Oney believes Hardy, a sturdy 6 feet, 3 inches, might be his best player ever, and that is saying something. Efficient point guards are a rare commodity, especially at the juco level.

“My job is to find the best way to help our team get the ball in the basket,” Hardy said. “I have to make the right reads, get the ball where it needs to go.”

And Hardy can score it, if need be. He is shooting 55 percent from the floor, 84 percent from the foul line. But he’s definitely a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. And he has a lot of talent to whom he can pass it.

Isaih Moore, a 6-10 inch St. John’s signee, averages 15.6 points and eight rebounds per game. Rodgerick Brown, a 6-7, 220-pound bruiser from Memphis, averages 12.5 points and seven rebounds a game. He has committed to play at Tulsa. The Wildcats have a lot of length and a lot of strength and a lot of depth.

Pearl River coach Chris Oney was high-fived by his son, Caleb, when the Wildcats reached the national Sweet 16 last year.

“I love my team,” Oney said after the Hinds victory. “I love the way we are finding ways to win games on the road like we did tonight. We just played well in spurts but it was enough.”

So now the Wildcats have three regular season games remaining and then what could be a long, successful post-season. They play at Gulf Coast Thursday night, at home against Southwest next Monday night, and then at Meridian next Thursday (Feb. 20). PRCC already has defeated all three teams decisively.

“I really believe we can finish the season undefeated,” Hardy, the point guard, said. “That’s been one goal from the start.”

And then?

“Our ultimate goal is a national championship,” he said. “We can do it.”

Six teams in the U.S. junior college basketball history have gone undefeated to a national title, most recently South Plains (Texas) in 2012.

Pearl River bids to up that number to a magnificent seven.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.