Wildcats look to remind everyone ‘We’re Pearl River Basketball’

Published 8:37 pm Saturday, October 30, 2021

POPLARVILLE, Miss. — Expectations never change for Chris Oney’s Pearl River men’s basketball program.

Two years removed from a perfect 28-0 season and one year after a 12-2 season that saw the Wildcats fall in the Region 23 Championship, and the Wildcats still have the same goal.

“Last year was obviously a difficult year with everything going on with COVID,” Oney said. “The start of the season was pushed to the spring as opposed to the fall and it created a lot of challenges not only for me but also for the guys. It was just different. Whereas this year, we don’t have any built-in excuses. We have all of our guys here, we have a full roster, and we should be back on track to make another run to Hutchinson, Kansas.”

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The goal for this year’s Wildcat squad is simple: “Finish.”

“Last year, I thought we did a good job of getting there, but we just didn’t finish,” Oney said. “I thought we were playing really good basketball when we left Gulf Coast and then COVID-19 hit us and we didn’t play again until the region tournament. It knocked us out of our rhythm.

“This year we just have to finish. I don’t think we have to do anything different from beginning to end, but this year when we get to the end — we have to finish.”

Entering into his sixth full season at the helm of the program, Oney says things feel similar to the start of his career.

“We’re just excited. I’m just as excited about this team as I was my first day on the job,” he said. “This has been a fun group to work with. They really do try to go out and do the things that you ask them to do as a coach.

“We just hope we all get to stand in that circle in Clinton with that plaque in our hands, holding up the number one at the end of the year.”

Despite losing just two games in two years, the Wildcats open the season as an unranked team, something that has not happened in three seasons.

“I think it absolutely gives us something to be motivated by, but every year we find something to be motivated by,” Oney said. “Not putting us in the top 25 when we’ve lost two games in two years and six games in three years; we lost one game in the regular season on a half-court shot at the buzzer and then lost in the region championship to a team who won a game in Hutchinson.

“We’re just going to go in on Monday and remind people that we’re Pearl River basketball.”

The Wildcats are one of a handful of teams receiving votes in the NJCAA Preseason Poll.

This year’s Wildcats are bolstered with three third-year players, which is a rarity at the JUCO level. Returning to lead PRCC in 2021-22 are All-America Honorable Mention JaRonn Wilkens (Biloxi), First-Team All-MACCC South selection Jariyon Wilkens (Biloxi) and Second-Team All-MACCC South selection Earl Smith (Jackson; Lanier).

“This is the first time in history that this has happened and hopefully the last,” Oney said. “Those three guys can run a practice without me being here. They know what we need to do and what to expect. They’ve been tremendous at preparing the young guys mentally for what is to come.

“It made the transitions for the new guys a lot smoother which made it a lot easier for me to get in the gym and coach.”

Smith was on the court often last season, averaging 32.4 minutes per game. He also chipped in 11 points per game, four assists per game and 4.2 rebounds per game

“With Earl, we think we will see him scoring more this year,” Oney said. “Last year he was forced to play the point every moment that he was on the court, but this year we brought in Jair (Currie) so Earl will be able to move back over to shooting guard and look to score more.

“It will not only help him as a player, but it will help us as a team.”

JaRonn Wilkens led the Wildcats in scoring last season with 15.8 ppg and his 6.4 rpg placed him second on the team. He also added in 1.4 apg. Oney is looking for another big year from his All-American.

“I’m not sure that JaRonn will have the same numbers as last year, but I think he will be just as impactful because he won’t have to log as many minutes as he did last year,” Oney said. “Even though he was strong, I think there were plays that he would’ve normally made last year, but he was just tired.

“I think he will have more opportunities to get some rest and he’ll be able to finish games strong.”

Jariyon Wilkens wrapped up the season as the second-leading scorer with 13.1 ppg. He also averaged 6.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, and 1.7 steals per game.

“We’re excited to have Jariyon’s experience back with us,” Oney said. “Jariyon, Jaronn and Earl have only lost two games since they’ve been here. They all know what it takes. Jariyon understands what we want and what the team needs.”

Pearl River also returns two standouts from last season in Cameron Brown (Hattiesburg) and Ankerion Gross (Sardis; North Panola).

Brown was a mainstay in the Wildcat starting lineup, averaging 11.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.4 spg.

Gross became a threat from beyond the arc for Pearl River last season, shooting 41.2 percent. He chipped in 7.2 ppg and 3.8 rpg.

The transfer portal has been good to the Wildcats over the last few seasons and that trend continued into this season as Pearl River brought in four transfers.

The list of transfers includes Copiah-Lincoln transfer J.D. Allen (Brookhaven; Wesson), Northwest Florida State transfer Brison Waller (Cleveland, O.H.; Garfield Heights), University of Maryland Eastern Shore transfer Jair Currie (Albany, N.Y.; The Moore School) and Harcum College transfer Nykie Jackson (Trenton, N.J.; The Patrick School).

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Currie’s 2020-21 season was canceled, but Oney believes he could have a special year.

“Jair is something that we haven’t had at the point guard position since I’ve been here,” Oney said. “He’s 6-foot-3 and can get to the basket. He’s not a fantastic shooter, but he can knock down shots. He comes off ball screens well.

“I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have a very talked-about year.”

Waller averaged 7.1 ppg and 2.8 rpg last season for the Raiders.

“Brison is one of the most athletic big men that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Oney said. “When he jumps to dunk a basketball, it’s incredible. He’s 6-foot-8 and can run. He’s got a nice touch around the rim. He’s striving to become more consistent out there on the court with his effort and energy.”

Allen led the Wolves in scoring and rebounding last season with 10.5 ppg and 4.8 rpg. He also tallied 1.3 steals and 1.8 assists.

Jackson averaged 10.3 ppg and 3.6 rpg last season with a Harcum squad that went 17-1.

Incoming freshmen include Alex Jordan (Hattiesburg), Dylan Brumfield (Hattiesburg; Oak Grove), Jeremiah Foster (Clinton) and Preston Turner (Laurel; West Jones) and is highlighted by Dandy Dozen selection Carlous Williams (Hattiesburg; Harrison Central).

Williams comes to Pearl River after previously being committed to South Carolina. The 6-foot-6 forward had a fantastic prep career and will play a huge role with Pearl River.

“The sky is the limit with Carlous,” Oney said. “It’s been fun to watch him from day one until this point. He came in and wasn’t quite used to the speed of the game and how hard you have to play every possession. He was so talented in high school that he didn’t have to box out to get rebounds and he didn’t have to post up hard to get points. Whereas all those things are important at this level. It’s been fun to watch him.”

The Wildcats hit the court for the first time in the 2021-22 season Monday as they host William Carey’s junior varsity squad in Marvin R. White Coliseum. The game is set to tip-off at 6 p.m. and will be livestreamed at PRCCMedia.com/gold.