The Sonic Shootout got a championship game worthy of its title Friday night. In a preview of things the come in District 6-AAA, the Pioneers and White County Warriors sang a symphony of string music in front of a packed house in Sparta.
In a brutal stretch of three games in three days, the Pioneers had just enough to bring home a trophy. Irving Espinoza’s free throws in the final five seconds helped Warren County survive a late 3-pointer and hang on to win 75-74.
“This group just has such a great will to win,” says Warren County coach Chris Sullens. “They find ways to get things done. I’m so proud of this team.”
Espinoza scored 20 points in the victory, none bigger than two free throws with :05 to play. The sophomore, who was named all-tournament, calmly sank two free throws after Warren County stood tall on the defensive end.
White County got several chances to tie, but the Pioneers finally snared a rebound and Espinoza buried two freebies.
Dylan Reese raced down and sank a 3-pointer, but without a timeout the Warriors had no way to stop the clock. Warren County sat on the ball, letting the clock expire before celebrating its championship.
Three games in three days put the Pioneers in survival mode. A short rotation, made shorter during the Shootout due to Caleb Newby’s absence, and heavy minutes wore heavy on Warren County. Not helping matters was losing Isaiah Grayson - named tournament MVP after averaging 17 points per game in three games, highlighted by 20 points Friday - and Chance Hobbs in the fourth when both seniors fouled out.
Coach Sullens tried to piece together lineups, buoyed by Espinoza hobbling through the late stretch while fighting fatigue and nagging injuries. By the end, the sophomore showed his clutch side on the charity stripe.
Early in the game, Espinoza was making it rain from deep. On a night where the Pioneers hit a season-high 15 triples, Espinoza sank six. White County kept pace, sinking 11 from outside as both teams scorched the nets.
“We committed as a coaching staff in the last few years that we had to be able to make shots from the outside. It’s just how basketball is played now,” said Sullens. “We have great shooters and they seemed to find a groove during the tournament.”
Grayson helped Warren County get off to a hot start. The senior forward scored 12 points in the first quarter, powering the Pioneers to a 25-12 lead.
Grant Slatton helped wake up the Warriors before the break, scoring seven points as White County put up 27 in the second quarter. The point barrage helped the Warriors slice the deficit to 44-39 by halftime. Tyree Ladet, another all-tournament honoree for the Pioneers, scored 13 of his 15 points before halftime.
The teams traded baskets throughout the second half. The dizzying pace was punctuated by Hobbs and Espinoza each sinking two 3-pointers, only to see White County strike back with two 3-pointers by Mayson Winningham.
The teams continued to throw haymakers until the final horn sounded when Warren County got the thrill of claiming the Shootout championship on the host school’s homecourt.
The celebration was something coach Sullens and his team savored, but Christmas break couldn’t be coming at a better time for the Pioneers.
“We really need this time to get rested, get healthy and get whole. These guys deserve some time off,” said Sullens.
Warren County won’t be back on the court until Jan. 2, when the Pioneers go for a season sweep over the Red Raiders in Coffee County.