Irving Espinoza waited patiently as an early 3-pointer danced on the rim. First the ball bounced, then kissed off the backboard before spinning back down through the hoop. As the senior ran down the court celebrating, there was only one thought in his mind – it’s good to be home.
Espinoza torched the nets with a career-high 28 points as the Pioneers downed District 6AAA rival Cookeville 84-69 Friday night, the first game Warren County has played at home in 18 days.
“It felt good seeing an early shot go in. It started off good – we have to do it at home,” said Espinoza, who hit eight 3-pointers in the contest. “It’s all about effort. Coach says it – we have to play hard, play with effort and get the W.”
CJ Taylor was right behind with 27 points, matching his career-best outing that came in the first game of the season. It was a huge breakout for the junior post as he was averaging just 10.7 points in the team’s last seven games, a stretch where the Pioneers went 2-5.
Warren County (12-10, 2-2) jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter behind Espinoza and Taylor. Taylor scored seven of his team’s first nine points, while Espinoza drained two early 3-pointers, including one which got a friendly roll on the home rims.
Once Espinoza got cooking, coach Chris Sullens knew what was coming.
“When the ball is in his hands, other coaches are worried because he can flat-out shoot it. When he gets in a rhythm – and he got in one tonight – he’s as good a shooter as I’ve ever coached,” said Sullens. “He knocked down some huge shots that really took the air out of Cookeville.”
His shooting display continued throughout the night, including when it mattered most. Warren County kept a double-digit lead through most of the contest, but Cookeville threatened to chip away late.
Things got dicey when Aiden Cummings, the team’s leading scorer in district games, fouled out with 6:25 to play, but Espinoza was there to steady the ship every time.
Espinoza drilled one 3-pointer from in front of the student section that pushed the lead back to 66-53 with 5:06 to play. Later, he was open from the corner in front of his bench. Sullens and his teammates were already counting the points by the time he let it fly, an added boost for a flamethrower from deep.
“I hear the crowd, hear the coaches, hear the teammates. I’m really confident when people hype me up. It’s what it’s all about,” said Espinoza.
Espinoza added a big tip-in late, “the first one he’s gotten in four years,” Sullens recalled, while Taylor dominated in the paint late as well.
Taylor got to flex his muscles on a three-point play with 3:25 to go. In the late stages, Taylor also grabbed a one-handed board over two Cookeville defenders off a missed free throw and calmly sank a layup with a smile.
Like everybody else on the Pioneer bench, he knew it was over.
It seemed that way from the start. Dee Spates scored nine of his 13 points in the first quarter to spot Warren County a 24-11 lead. The Pioneers carried a 41-31 advantage into halftime.
The lead never fell lower than seven points in the second half, a welcome sight for a team looking to regain its footing in the district standings.
Warren County is now 2-2 in district play, sitting in third place. Stone Memorial and White County are both tied atop the standings at 3-0 and will meet Tuesday.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m proud of my group. We got back in the district race,” said Sullens.
Warren County will play at home again Monday against DeKalb County in a make-up game that was originally set for December. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.