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Pioneers win district title
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When I shot it, I knew it was going in
CJ Taylor

CJ Taylor knew two things in the last five seconds of the District 6AAA championship. First, he predicted White County was going to miss a pressure-packed free throw. After that, he wasn’t giving up the ball when he grabbed the rebound.

It’s a good thing he was right about both.

Taylor went coast-to-coast in the final 5.6 seconds Tuesday night, pulling up at the 3-point line to sink a buzzer-beater to defeat White County 78-76 and give Warren County its first district championship in over 40 years.

It was part of a 32-point effort for the junior, who is turning into a modern-day Nostradamus. He seems to be right on all his predictions of late, including taking down the Warriors for a title.

“We wanted Sparta from the jump and I feel like we’re going to get them. We’re going to win a district – that’s all I have to say,” Taylor said last Friday after the Pioneers beat Stone Memorial to advance to the finals.

In the waning seconds Friday, even with Warren County having to sweat out a free throw that could put them down, Taylor continued his run of correct predictions.

“The kid that was shooting – I was hoping he wasn’t ready for the moment. In my head, I thought he was going to miss it. Whenever he missed it, I wasn’t passing,” said Taylor. “When I shot it, I knew it was going in.”

Taylor’s last-second jumper tickled the twine as the horn blew, leading to an explosion from a huge Pioneer crowd which made the trip to Sparta. The Pioneer bench swarmed Taylor as well, who had to regroup in time to accept the District 6AAA tournament MVP award after his career-high scoring night.

Irving Espinoza added 20 points in the victory, hitting six 3-pointers on his way to an all-tournament selection. Lacedrick ‘Red’ Cox (11 points), Dee Spates (nine points) and Aiden Cummings (six points) were also named to the all-tournament team.

Here’s more from the Pioneer championship:

Key numbers

26 – After a quiet first half, full of turnovers and missed opportunities, Taylor blew up in the second half. Coming into Tuesday’s final, the junior lefty’s best scoring night was 27 points. He scored 26 in the final two quarters against White County, including 15 in the fourth quarter and the game winner.

Taylor answered the bell big time.

12 – The Pioneers connected from deep 12 times Tuesday, with Espinoza owning half of those. Taylor added five – and what looked like six at the buzzer, though it didn’t seem to matter during the celebration. Cox had one as well, an important triple splashed during a Sparta run in the second quarter.

4 – When White County beat the Pioneers twice earlier this season in Sparta, the Warriors lived on the charity stripe. In the district final, White County made just 4-of-9 free throws, including a pivotal miss with 5.6 seconds to go by Tucker Nash.

5 – The number of Pioneers who received all-tournament honors after the game, including Taylor’s well-deserved MVP award. Plenty of eye brows were raised after the season when Spates garnered just honorable mention for the season, while Cox was left off the award ballot completely. Both played like they were slighted and walked out with hardware Tuesday.

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Five Pioneers earned all-tournaments honors following a district championship. Pictured are, from left, Aiden Cummings, Dee Spates, Lacedrick 'Red' Cox, tournament MVP CJ Taylor and Irving Espinoza.

Key moments:

CJ Taylor’s block of Grant Slatten in the first quarter – The District 6AAA player of the year has been known for hammering home some thunderous dunks for the Warriors this season. Slatten can jump out of the gym and seems to relish flushing it at home, giving a loud Sparta crowd something to cheer.

When he went to the top floor early in the final, Taylor was there waiting for him. CJ turned Slatten away, sending a message that the Pioneers weren’t playing around defensively. Slatten was going to have to earn his buckets.

Slatten finished with 21 points – down from the 32.5 points he averaged in White County’s two early wins over the Pioneers. In the last 93 seconds, Slatten was stuffed by Taylor at the rim (1:33 left), threw a ball out of bounds with White County down two (57.3 seconds), and had the ball ripped out of his hands - again Taylor – with his team trailing by two (16.7 seconds).

Slatten is still the best player in the district, but Taylor was the best player in Tuesday’s matchup.

Espinoza’s 3 before the halftime buzzer – Warren County came out with a haymaker in the first quarter, running out to a 13-4 lead. It was 20-11 in favor of the Pioneers after the first quarter. The Warriors stormed back though, flustering the Pioneers with zone looks to stifle the scoring.

Desperation started the sink in when White County took a 37-35 lead with a four-point play with 1:06 left in the first half. Masyn Winningham splashed the corner 3 while being hit by Taylor – his second foul, sending him to the bench for the final minute.

The Warriors were up four in the waning seconds of the period when a Warren County possession going nowhere ended with a loose ball being slapped out to Espinoza. The senior didn’t even get his feet fully set, but it didn’t matter. He drained the triple, pulling his team to within one, 39-38, at the break.

As has been the case all year, Espinoza’s long-range ability calmed the team in chaotic times.

Taylor’s first long ball late – Before CJ etched his name in Warren County lore with the buzzer beater, he also drilled a gigantic triple with :28 left. The Pioneers were trailing 74-73 after a Slatten 3-point play and Sullens asked for time with 40.6 ticks remaining.

White County seemed to anticipate Spates going to the rim, but he drew two defenders and kicked out to Taylor for a corner 3. Taylor – a 28.3 percent shooter from deep this year – calmly sank the go-ahead bucket.

CJ late 3

CJ Taylor buries a go-ahead 3 off a pass from Dee Spates with 28.0 seconds left in Monday’s district championship game.
By: Jeffery Simmons

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Lasting images

Hoisting Trevor Evans – When Warren County was presented the District 6AAA championship plaque, the Pioneers rushed out to center court to accept their hard-earned prize. In the middle of it all was Evans, the senior manager who was emerged as the team’s heart and soul down the stretch. When he had the plaque in his grasp, his teammates lifted him in the air. It was one of the most emotional – and uplifting – moments of the night.

Trevor gets lifted

When Warren County claimed its trophy, team leader Trevor Evans was lifted in the air by teammates. The senior has been an inspiration to the Pioneers this season.

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Sullens cutting down the net – Nearly an hour after Taylor’s heroics, the Pioneers began taking their hacks at the White County net. Little-by-little, pieces were carried away – forever souvenirs for the new champs.

At the very end, Sullens made the last cut. A big crowd had stayed around to see Sullens lift the net in triumph, then drape it around his neck. For a coach who grew up in Warren County, played for the Pioneers and has put in countless hours to help local basketball, it was a dream come true to finally be cutting down the nets.

Sullens cuts net

Chris Sullens takes down the net at White County Monday night. The former Pioneer achieved a lifetime goal, bringing a district basketball championship back to Warren County.

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Unfinished business

Goal No. 1 was a district championship, but it wasn’t the only one on the Pioneer wish list before the season. Warren County will be back on the court Saturday to face Ooltewah in the region quarterfinals. The Pioneers have won just two region games since 1980, the last coming two years ago at Walker Valley.

This region game will be different than any other in Warren County history too. It will be played at Charlie Dalton Gym – a first for the program. A start time was expected to be set late Wednesday after the region bracket was fully settled.