Typically in the season opener, coaches are more concerned with what their team will do than worrying about the opponent. Chris Sullens usually takes the same approach, but the size of the Community Vikings worried the Pioneer coach.
Its concerns were justified.
The Vikings used their tremendous size advantage down the stretch to pull past the Pioneers 82-78 in the Hall of Champions matchup in Unionville Tuesday.
“I thought their size affected us in a couple of areas, especially rebounding the basketball,” said Sullens, who is now in his sixth season with the Pioneers. “We saw on film from their scrimmages they were a solid basketball team with all five returning seniors as starters. The environment at their place was good for our group.”
Junior CJ Taylor scored a career-high 27 points and Irving Espinoza added 19 points off the bench for the Pioneers, but it wasn’t enough on the road. The Vikings were led by center Kobe Pride’s 20 points.
The size differential was evident from the opening tip as 6-foot-3 Pioneer center Aiden Cummings was dwarfed at midcourt by the 6-foot-9 Pride. The Vikings also had 6-foot-9 Corde Lane, who scored seven points in the win.
To combat the giants on the opposite sideline, the Pioneers relied on their speed and shooting. It worked for three and a half quarters.
Warren County used a 10-2 run in the second quarter to build its biggest lead of the first half, 43-35. Espinoza jump-started the spurt, nailing back-to-back 3-pointers out of the left corner. Espinoza was instant offense in the first half, drilling four 3-pointers in the second period alone as he scored 14 points before the break.
The Pioneers hit 8-of-13 tries from the outside in the first half to build a 45-42 lead.
“We were very efficient offensively. We struggled with some situational basketball and clock management, but we will only improve from this game. I think we can build on it,” said Sullens.
Warren County took its biggest lead midway through the third quarter when senior Lacedrick ‘Red’ Cox, who finished with 12 points, sliced through the defense for a lefty layup to make it 53-44. Community quickly responded with a 9-0 run, aided when Taylor had to leave the game after rolling his ankle.
Espinoza quietened the home crowd with his fifth 3-pointer to end the spurt, but Warren County trailed 61-60 entering the fourth after the Vikings finished the third with a three-point play from Pride and a putback off a Taylor block by Tyrese Eady.
Taylor tried to put the Pioneers on his back early in the fourth, hitting two corner 3s and a floater during a 14-5 run that gave Warren County a 74-66 with four minutes to play.
From there, Pride took over.
He scored seven big points in the paint down the stretch, including a sweeping hook while being fouled that bounced on the rim three times before falling in. His ensuing free throw gave Community a 75-74 lead with 2:31 to go.
After another short shot by Eady made it 77-74 in the final minute, the Pioneers had a wide-open shot to tie, but Cox’s triple missed the mark. Eli Jones missed another clean look from outside on the next possession with his team down four, though Cox sailed in for a tip-in to make it a two-point game with 58.7 seconds left.
Community sealed the game at the line, hitting 6-of-7 free throws down the stretch.
Warren County will get two shots to redeem itself this weekend when it takes part in the Hall of Champions event at Coffee County. The Pioneers are slated to play Moore County at 4:30 p.m. and Forrest at 5:45 p.m. Saturday. Both games are set to be played at Coffee County Middle School.