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Pioneers pull off OT victory
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Photos courtesy of Painted Barn Media Aiden Cummings works for an early bucket against tough defense from Stone Memorial. Cummings had eight points and three rebounds in Tuesday's 68-66 victory over the visisting Panthers.

If the Pioneers keep pulling out close contests, CJ Taylor may steal Karl Malone’s nickname. The junior Pioneer is just the like the mail man – always delivering.

Taylor hit two pressure-packed free throws with 2.3 seconds left in overtime Tuesday night, helping Warren County defeat Stone Memorial 68-66. It was part of a 21-point, 10-rebound performance by the junior, who was clutch when it mattered most against the Panthers.

“People have been giving me crap about not being a good free-throw shooter and I have continuously worked on it. It’s the Mamba mentality – I knew my team needed me to do what I do,” said Taylor, who is averaging 16.5 points and seven rebounds in district games. “”

Warren County (15-10, 4-2) broke the huddle from a timeout with 12.6 seconds remaining, opting to go straight to Taylor on the wing. The Panthers sent a double team at Taylor once he put the ball on the ground, leaving him no choice but to look for other options.

Taylor spotted Lacedrick ‘Red’ Cox open in the corner, but the senior’s potential game winner was off the mark. Taylor took matters into his own hands, rising over two Panthers in the paint to grab the rebound. Before he could make it back up for a putback, he was grabbed and fouled.

“Coach always asks, ‘What kind of competitor are you?’ At that point, it’s who wants the ball more,” said Taylor.

If there’s a hole in Taylor’s game this season, it’s been the junior’s shooting at the line. Coming into the game shooting below 60 percent from the charity stripe, Taylor was sent to the stripe shooting a 1-and-1. He calmly sank both shots, neither touching anything but net.

Even after Taylor’s freebies, the Pioneers had to sweat the final 2.3 seconds – and three buzzers.

After a Stone Memorial timeout, the Panthers tried to throw an inbounds pass to midcourt. Taylor knocked the ball out of bounds, but the horn blew after the ball hit the ground. 

The referees deliberated and decided to put :02 back on the clock. Stone Memorial went back to inbound, only to see the Pioneers knock the ball out of play – and the horn sound – again. 

Another deliberation led to 0.8 seconds being added to the clock, giving the Panthers enough time to try a lob pass from under their own basket. The pass was errant though, with Aiden Cumming picking it off and slinging the ball toward the rafters as the third – and final – horn sounded.

It was the second straight time the Pioneers have gone down to the final second to earn a district victory, following last Friday’s wild one-point win over White County. 

Sullens feels like his team is finally grasping the second-to-second struggle that is district basketball.

“These guys from top to bottom have realized what it's going to take to win games at this time of the year,” said Sullens. “Nothing is going to be given. It has taken every second of the last two games and then some. We never stopped competing.”

Spates nearly made overtime a moot point with a miracle heave. 

With the game tied at 61 near the end of regulation, Warren County had the ball at midcourt with 1.2 seconds to play. The ball went in to Spates at halfcourt, where he took two dribbles before launching. His shot banked in, but he took too long to get it off, one of the few times Spates didn’t get it done against the Panthers.

All other times, Spates was the engine pushing the Pioneers.

He drilled two 3-pointers during a second-quarter stretch where the Pioneers took a double-digit lead. When the Panthers stormed back in the second half, Spates was there to hold them off.

The junior couldn’t be stopped off the dribble, evidenced by his blow-by that set up a Taylor layup that gave the Pioneers a 61-59 lead in regulation. 

Spates made it 66-64 in favor of Warren County with 1:00 left, blitzing past a Stone Memorial defender before sinking a teardrop floater over two outstretched hands in the paint.

The Panthers answered with a layup from Zachary Boyd following a timeout, setting up a wild final 30 seconds.

Taylor also hit a tying 3-pointer with 2:15 to go in OT, answering a big shot from Stone Memorial’s Zach Street to start extra time. 

Irving Espinoza finished with 13 points in the win, including a gigantic, go-ahead triple with 2:00 left in regulation. Cox added 12 points, followed by eight from Cummings.

Warren County will try to push its win streak to six games Friday night when it plays host to Rhea County. Tip-off at Charlie Dalton Gym is set for 7:30 p.m.