Chris Sullens isn’t celebrating moral victories.
Nobody would have faulted the Pioneers for their effort in Tuesday’s 54-50 loss to Stone Memorial, the District 6AAA favorite. But with the bar being raised during last year’s 23-win campaign, Warren County is no longer satisfied with close losses.
“We aren’t happy with being one or two possessions away from winning,” said Sullens. “We know what type of effort and intensity it takes and we will continue to work on the practice floor to execute better.”
Warren County (12-7) erased an 11-point deficit in the third quarter of Tuesday’s district debut with the long ball, getting three triples from CJ Taylor to surge into a 38-37 lead with 6:28 to play. Taylor’s 3-point shooting barrage, featuring a buzzer beater at the end of the third quarter, was part of a 17-point performance.
Yet when the stakes were at their highest, Stone Memorial seized control. Panther point guard and returning all-district performer Brett Newcombe scored six points in the final two minutes, leading his team to a statement win on the road. Newcombe twice beat Pioneer defenders into the paint for points, including a three-point play which gave his team a 50-43 lead with 1:38 to play.
Lacedrick Cox hit a huge 3-pointer from the corner with 12.5 seconds left that cut the lead to 52-50, but the Panthers prevailed on two clutch free throws from Kaleb McCoy.
Loaded with Newcombe and 6-foot-7, smooth-shooting post Justin Headrick, the Panthers are projected to be the class of the district. Stone Memorial won the tournament title last year during its run to the substate – buoyed by two postseason wins over Warren County.
Many of the Pioneers who made it tough on the Panthers last winter are gone, but Stone Memorial wasn’t expecting a romp Tuesday.
“We’ve played in this district long enough to know that when you come to Warren County, it’s going to be a dog fight,” Panther coach Neil Capps told the Crossville Chronicle. “Sullens does a great job, and they’re always ready to compete. They lost a ton of kids from last year, so it’s a testament to him.”
Sullens knew the challenge the Panthers presented. The Pioneers responded by throwing some tactical curveballs, including leaning on a zone defense for the first time this season.
It helped turn the game into a 3-point shooting contest. Both teams connected on 10 3-pointers, a huge growth from the start of the season when Warren County entered without a reliable deep threat.
The shooting and defense was all Sullens could ask from his team.
“I was proud of how we played in regard to effort and hustle. I thought we gave the type of effort needed to win,” said Sullens. “It comes down to being able to finish on the offensive and defensive ends. Fundamentally, we have to make the most of the opportunities we earn.
“We experienced our first district test against a very good Stone Memorial team.”
The Pioneers will be back into district action Tuesday, Jan. 15, with a road game at Rhea County. Warren County swept the season series last year and topped the Golden Eagles in the Sonic Shootout in December.
Tip-off Tuesday is set for 6:30 p.m.
Panther scoring - Brett Newcombe 17, Justin Headrick 14, Hunter Wattenbarger 9, Chris Coudriet 6, Jared Van Winkle 2, Kaleb McCoy 2, Jack Eldridge 2, Will Hecker 2
Pioneer scoring - CJ Taylor 17, Sloan Seymour 11, Ethan Smith 10, Lacedrick Cox 6, Raven Lewandowski 6