When the Pioneers stumbled on their home court to Stone Memorial last week, coach Chris Sullens pondered if his team had enough grit to get a district title.
He may have gotten his answer Friday night in Rhea County.
Facing the fired-up Eagle team on its senior night and down a key member of their rotation for the most of the game, the Pioneers came back to win 65-64 to get an emphatic 20th victory.
“I can’t say it enough about how much our kids battled,” said Sullens. “The stands were packed for a senior night. It was loud. We had some obstacles.
“Our kids just refused to back down.”
While Irving Espinoza’s 18 points, a team-high, were vital, it was a steal late that may have been his biggest play. The Pioneers were clinging to a one-point lead when the sophomore got his hands on the ball to stop the Eagles from regaining the lead.
Isaiah Grayson got a chance to polish off Rhea County at the line, hitting a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch after snaring a rebound in traffic and being fouled. It was part of a 16-point night for the senior, who continues to carry a bigger offensive load in District 6-AAA games.
Grayson is averaging 14.0 points per game for the 20-5 Pioneers, but his average has jumped to 19 points per game in the team’s six district games.
Defense was the difference though, according to Sullens.
“Our guys locked in after halftime. Chance Hobbs took on a big challenge and worked hard for 32 minutes,” said Sullens. “We weren’t going to stop battling.”
Tyree Ladet scored 12 points in the victory, his third game in a row in double figures. Hobbs finished with seven, while Sloan Seymour scored six before leaving with an injury.
Sullens also praised his bench’s involvement. While not packing the stat sheet – Caleb Newby scored four points and Austin Hodges hit two free throws for the only offense off the bench – coach Sullens had to count on his bench after losing a starter midway through the second quarter.
Seymour was involved in a big collision in a race for the ball. The junior stayed down for a couple minutes, but ultimately was able to walk off the court. He didn’t return, and his availability this week is still undetermined.
His absence would be big as the Pioneers prepare to play host to Cookeville Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. at Charlie Dalton Gym) and travel to White County Friday to complete the regular season.
Sullens sees the upcoming games as a continuation of what his team started Friday in Dayton.
“I’m proud of the guys. Step one is complete. Now it’s on to step two.”