No election was needed.
There’s a new sheriff in District 6-AAA and it’s the Warren County Pioneers.
Warren County put itself in pole position in the district standings and for the top seed in next week’s district tournament with a 58-56 victory over Cookeville Tuesday night.
“We had several goals before the season started and they build on each other,” said coach Chris Sullens. “This is a big step toward our first goal – a district title. There’s still work to be done, but we will enjoy this one for now.”
Senior Tyree Ladet busted out in a big way, scoring a game-high 22 points, including the eventual game-winning putback layup with 33.2 seconds left. Ladet missed his initial layup following a clear out, but won the battle for the rebound and laid it in among a group of bodies.
It was a fitting close to a game where Warren County used grit and determination, supplanting the shooting and skill that had been its hallmark while building a 21-5 record, to avenge a 66-52 loss to the Cavaliers in January. The Pioneers rebounded 13 of their 30 misses and won despite season-lows in 3-pointers (five) and free throws made (one).
“This was about grit and desire. Two weeks ago, I wondered if we had enough grit to win a physical battle,” said Sullens. “I think I got my answer.”
Isaiah Grayson added 18 on a night where he, Ladet, Chance Hobbs (7 points), Caleb Newby (9 points) and Bunker Brock were honored on senior night. The group got the start and set the tone from the onset, pounding Cookeville in the paint – early body shots in what would become a heavyweight fight between the top two teams in the district.
Irving Espinoza brought a capacity crowd at Charlie Dalton Gym to its feet at the end of the first quarter, burying an 18-footer at the buzzer to give the Pioneers an early 19-17 advantage. Cookeville bounced back in the second quarter, using nine points from Alex Garrett and a late 8-0 run to go into halftime leading 37-29.
Warren County swung the tide coming out of the locker rooms. Ladet and Grayson got on the board with back-to-back layups, prompting Cavalier coach Kevin Bray to call a timeout just 48 seconds into the second half.
The break did little to slow the Pioneers. Chance Hobbs hit a 3-pointer right in front of the student section to draw Warren County within one, 40-39, minutes later. Grayson gave the Pioneers their first lead of the second half on the next possession, knifing through the lane for a leaning layup.
The game stayed nip-and-tuck the rest of the way.
With the game knotted at 56 and the clock under a minute, coach Sullens took a timeout to try to set up a winning play. He put the ball in the hands of Ladet, who had been relentless in attacking the rim throughout the night.
Ladet once again put his head down, charging in from the wing to get a good look. His initial shot spun out, but the senior got a second chance and quickly put it in off the glass.
Cookeville turned to Garrett in hopes of tying, but the powerful post was stopped by Newby in the paint. The Pioneers rebounded, and the Cavaliers were forced to foul five straight times before Warren County went to the line.
Ladet missed the front end of a one-and-one with :02 left, but after a timeout, the Pioneers intercepted a full-court pass attempt to end the game. Students stormed the court as Warren County moved one win away from clinching a least a share of the district title.
The Pioneers will go on the road in search of their next victory Friday. Warren County is set to play White County at 7:30 p.m.