A spirited effort by the Pioneers on the road fell short Tuesday night.
Warren County was unable to upset the preseason District 6AAA favorite White County, falling 69-63 to the Warriors in the district debut for both teams.
Coach Chris Sullens had hoped his team would flip a switch entering district play, especially after the team’s sluggish start to 2020 (three losses the last four games). He got exactly what he wanted, but the Warriors were just too strong on their home court.
“It’s exactly the type of game we knew we would see in district. We played pretty consistent for 32 minutes,” said Sullens. “Defensively, it was a much better effort as a whole. We simplified things on both ends and were satisfied we the plan we had.
“I was proud of how our team competed on the road, especially at a very tough place to play.”
Even a career-high 24 points from Aiden Cummings and CJ Taylor’s 17-point, eight-rebound, three-assist performance wasn’t enough to take down the Warriors. Grant Slatten again was a pain for the Pioneers, scoring 34 points in the victory.
Slatten, who had 31 points when White County beat the Pioneers 72-54 in the Sonic Shootout finals last month, pushed the Warriors over the top again in Tuesday’s contest. The junior forward hit a huge 3-pointer and finished on a three-point play in the opening minutes of the final period, breaking what was a 49-49 tie entering the last eight minutes.
“We need to finish games regardless of where they are played. As well as we executed, we shouldn’t be satisfied. We got better at White County, but it wasn’t enough,” said Sullens.
Cummings spotted the Pioneers an early lead with his breakout performance. Cummings, who averages just eight points a game, had 10 points in the first period, scoring over and through White County defenders. Cummings opened the scoring with a three-point play, then stepped out and sank a 3-pointer on the next possession.
Warren County led 19-15 after the first quarter, with Cummings finishing the flurry with a buzzer-beating layup off a Dee Spates’ dime. Spates and Cummings showed a great connection throughout the contest, with the junior finishing with eight assists, most coming to the burly post.
CJ Taylor gave the Pioneers their biggest lead – 23-15 – on a triple early in the second quarter, but he picked up his second foul moments later and had to watch the rest of the half. Taylor was the first starter to go to the bench as Sullens played his first five – Taylor, Cummings, Spates, Irving Espinoza and Lacederick ‘Red’ Cox – the whole first quarter.
White County took advantage of Taylor’s absence, surging into the lead despite Cummings continuing to bust free on the inside. Cummings had a pair of three-point plays in the period, but the Warriors leaned on Slatten to bounce back.
Slatten hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter and split the Pioneer defense for a thunderous dunk, helping White County surge in front 31-30 late in the half.
Cummings stepped up once again though, drawing a charge with :20 seconds left. The junior followed by threading the needle to Spates for a floater that sunk through the net just as the horn sounded to put the Pioneers ahead 32-31 at the break.
Espinoza and Taylor each drilled 3-pointers in the third to keep the Pioneers afloat, setting up a thrilling fourth quarter.
Slatten made it a little less dramatic by taking over.
He hit one driving layup that swished through as he went crashing to the floor after a stumbling Pioneer fell into his legs, then drilled a corner 3 moments later.
Warren County had chances late to draw close, especially when the Warriors were called for a late technical, but struggles at the line sealed the team’s fate.
“The free-throw line was the difference,” said Sullens after his team went 9-for-15, including a pair of misses on the front end of 1-and-1s late in the second quarter, compared to White County’s 18-for-23 mark.
Warren County will look to bounce back Friday when it travels to play Stone Memorial in the second of three straight district road games. The Pioneers will take the court at 7:30 p.m. against the Panthers.