Irving Espinoza thought he had a clear strip. The Pioneer bench did as well. When the whistle blew though, nothing would be the same for Warren County.
Bolstered by a load of free throws, Upperman used a 14-0 run in the second quarter to gain separation from the Pioneers in their home debut. Warren County never recovered, falling 68-45 in its home debut.
Warren County (4-2) was leading 20-13 when the Bees tossed a pass inside to their big post Filip Babic. Espinoza snuck in and looked like he had a steal and was going the other way, but instead a whistle blew when the Pioneers gained possession.
Not only was the steal wiped out, but Babic was ruled to be shooting despite the ball being below his waist and him still being on the ground at the time. He missed both shots, but two Pioneers collided on the rebound, allowing Donoven McAllister to steal the rebound and score through contact.
An ensuing free throw sparked a run where the Bees would score six straight at the line to take the lead.
During the run, CJ Taylor had one drive where he was bumped, but there was no whistle and the Bees were rewarded the ball off his leg. On the next drive, Taylor tried to avoid contact on a sliding defender, but was still called for an offensive foul.
By the time Upperman guard Collin Gore knifed to the basket and Dee Spates was called for a foul, Pioneer coach Chris Sullens had seen enough, especially with Warren County already being whistled for 11 fouls compared to three on the Bees.
Sullens argued the call with one official, while another from the other side of the court came to the rescue and gave Sullens a warning. She would return seconds later to access a technical on Sullens, giving Gore four freebies at the line. He hit 3-of-4, the last giving the Bees the lead for good.
“We played well early – we were getting what we wanted as far as offensive looks and seemed to be locked in on the defensive end. About midway through the second quarter, the wheels fell off and I take responsibility for that,” said Sullens.
Spates finally snapped a 14-0 run and five-minute scoreless spell with a floater with less than 15 seconds left in the half, but Upperman beat the buzzer with a layup to lead 29-22 at half.
The Bees continued their run with the first two baskets of the second half in the span of 20 seconds, leading to an early Sullens timeout. It didn’t seem to do much, as Warren County rarely moved the lead under double digits before ultimately falling apart in the fourth.
“The technical was a mistake that put our team on our heels. Mentally, we looked fragile going into the half and then the first three possessions coming out of the half were bad,” said Sullens. “When we needed to get stops to claw back in the game, we never dug in to do it. We have to be a tougher, grittier team against good basketball teams. We need to learn this and I believe we will.”
Aiden Cummings gave some hope of a late rally when he banked in a late heave to beat the third-quarter buzzer. The shot cut the deficit to 45-34 entering the fourth.
Taylor sandwiched four points around a long 3-pointer from Jaxon Fox early in the fourth to cut the Bee lead to 48-38 with 6:22 left, but the Pioneers never got closer.
Gore helped hold off Warren County late, scoring seven of his game-high 22 points in the last period. Babic, one of Upperman’s two 6-foot-6 posts, finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Taylor led the Pioneers with 16 points and seven rebounds, while Espinoza scored 12 – all on 3-pointers. Freshman Kaden Rutledge added nine points.