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Another miraculous comeback wasn’t in the cards for the Pioneers in Cleveland.
Warren County was pounded in the region final, falling 73-44 to the Blue Raiders. It was the second straight season Cleveland beat the Pioneers in the postseason, though this one won’t end Warren County’s season.
The Pioneers will have the weekend to prepare for sectionals. Because of Thursday’s loss, Warren County will have to travel to Murfreesboro to play the winner of Friday’s Siegel – Blackman matchup.
Aiden Cummings and Dee Spates led the Pioneers with 12 points apiece in Thursday’s blowout, where Warren County was outscored 44-24 in the second half.
“I was outcoached,” said coach Chris Sullens after the game. “It’s on me – I knew after last year’s game we needed to see more teams like this. We struggled to score and that’s on me.
“They sped us up and took out of our game. They hit some big shots too. Credit to them – I have to get us more prepared for our next game.”
Warren County (19-7) knew its season wasn’t on line like last year when Cleveland sent the Pioneers packing in Sparta with a 52-31 victory in the region semifinals. Still, Warren County had revenge, a region title and – most importantly – a home game in the sectionals on its mind when it arrived in Cleveland.
Kley McGowan and Garrison Hurst weren’t having it. McGowan, a fan favorite in Cleveland, scored a game-high 23 points, including three 3-pointers in a row near the end of the third quarter that put the game away. Hurst finished with 14 points and took home the Region 3AAA MVP tournament award following the victory.
Cummings, Spates, CJ Taylor and Kaden Rutledge were all named to the all-region tournament team following the loss.
Pioneer region tournament honorees were, from left, Aiden Cummings, CJ Taylor, Dee Spates and Kaden Rutledge.
Pioneer scoring – Cummings 12, Spates 12, Rutledge 6, Taylor 4, Braylon Grayson 3, Keldrick ‘Pee Wee’ Cox 2, Eli Kuykendall 2, Kaden Desmarais 2, Nate Elrod 1
Taylor silenced in finals
Just two nights after a performance of a lifetime, CJ Taylor was largely invisible against the Blue Raiders. He finished with just four points, tied for the lowest output of the season (he also scored four points against Franklin – another team heading to sectionals next week).
Taylor’s silent night was a mixture of Cleveland’s defense, an off-shooting night for the senior and foul trouble.
Cleveland coach Reggie Tucker spoke after the game about the importance of limiting Taylor – one of the top things on the Blue Raider scouting report.
“We didn’t want CJ to get comfortable. We wanted to keep him off balance,” said Tucker.
There was hope Taylor’s hot streak that sunk East Hamilton would carry over into the region finals, but instead it was 180 from the outside. CJ missed all of his 3-point attempts and finished with just one made field goal in the contest.
It was tough to find the groove while dealing with foul trouble. Taylor picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, forcing him to take a prolonged spot on the bench in the first half. He picked up another foul in the second quarter, his fourth in the third quarter and ultimately fouled out with over six minutes to go in the final period.
If there’s a silver lining from Thursday’s shooting struggles, it’s that CJ rarely stays cold for long. The last time Taylor missed all of his 3-pointers in a game was senior night against Cookeville. He hit 12-of-31 (38.7 percent) in the next four contests, including his six-triple barrage to push the Pioneers into their first sectional appearance since 1975.
Taylor newest piece of hardware – an all-region tournament nod – was well deserved. He had back-to-back double doubles before Thursday, posting 22 points and 11 rebounds over McMinn County before his unforgettable 37-point, 14-rebound highlight reel against the Hurricanes.
Slowing Spates key in the victory
While coach Tucker and his Blue Raiders were all familiar with Taylor --- who in the state of Tennessee isn’t at this point – the blueprint for stopping the Pioneers wasn’t based on slowing down CJ. Instead, Tucker wanted to do everything in his power to keep Dee Spates from showing out.
“I knew No. 3 was the head of the snake,” said Tucker, referring to Spates. “Watching them last year and 4-5 games this year, if you don’t slow him down, it’s going to be a long night. He makes the guys go.
“CJ is the leading scorer and leading rebounder, but (Dee) makes them go.”
Spates was able to hit a few 3-pointers, including a big one late in the first half that kept the Pioneers in contention by the break, but he wasn’t able to get the Pioneers cooking like most nights. The District 6AAA Tournament MVP was the a top priority for the Blue Raider defense.
“Our whole game plan was to keep it out of No. 24 and No. 3’s hands and just make them uncomfortable,” said McGowan, who drew the assignment of defending Spates at times. “The other guys feed off them, so if we take them out of the play, we would make the other guys beat us.”
Coach Chris Sullens has long said Spates is the best point guard around – and he’s backed it up on the court all postseason. On Thursday, the pressure on the Pioneer point guard was unrelenting.
“The pressure bothered us some. They got us sped up and we did some uncharacteristic things,” said Sullens. “We can fix that. We know Dee can do a lot of it on his own. There are some times we have to give him help though.”
Spates was also named to the all-region tournament team after averaging 14 points and nearly five assists and five rebounds per game in the last three contests.
McGowan draws plenty of attention
It is hard to miss Kley McGowan and it’s no secret as to why.
“I already know most of the eyes are on me because of the hair. That gets people looking at me,” said McGowan.
He’s right. With a long, blonde mullet, McGowan stands out the moment he steps on the court. His hair spawns chants from the Cleveland student section and wide-eye stares by most opponents.
But it doesn’t take long to take your focus off his hair once McGowan gets rolling. As soon as he has the ball, he simply dazzles with solid play.
McGowan was a one-man wrecking crew at times against the Pioneers, especially in the third quarter when Cleveland turned the region final into a blowout. McGowan caught fire, drilling three 3-pointers in a row as the Blue Raiders pushed ahead by 24 points.
The last 3-pointer was a heat check that touched nothing but net and it sent a shockwave through the gym.
“I was just feeling it at that point. I knew I was going to let it fly when I was dribbling past half court,” said McGowan.
He’s the quintessential “love him, hate him” basketball player. If he plays for your team, he’s the best. If he plays against your team, he’s the worst.
McGowan got an earful many times from a packed Pioneer student section in the second half, but he smiled and kept hitting shots. It’s not the first time he’s been the center of attention.
“I just embrace it,” said McGowan when asked about the crowd focusing on him. “It feels good when everybody is cheering you on when you hit a big shot, so I just try to take it all in.”
Coach Chris Sullens knew what McGowan was capable of when the game was tipped off. His scout was confirmed by man with the mullet over and over.
“We told the guys before the game that No. 23 was going to play as hard as anybody they faced all year. He can really get them going. He did that tonight,” said Sullens.
Crushing the Pioneers’ hope
When CJ Taylor went to the bench in the fourth quarter after fouling out, it felt like the game was over. The Pioneers were already down by 20-plus points and nothing seemed to be trending their way. Cleveland had all the momentum and kept it until the final horn, knowing it couldn’t afford to slow down against the Pioneers.
“We weren’t going to let them fill up with gas,” said Cleveland coach Reggie Tucker. “It’s never over– I saw those guys in the East Hamilton game keep grinding and getting stops. They weren’t going to quit. They have some tough kids.”
Indeed, most of the first half felt a lot like the region semifinal against the Hurricanes Tuesday. Warren County wasn’t playing its best and Taylor wasn’t filling it up, but the Pioneers remained in striking distance at halftime, trailing just 29-20.
When the second half started, the Pioneers struck first with a Kaden Rutledge layup and had a chance to cut the lead down to five on multiple shots over the next minute. Stringing two made baskets together wasn’t meant to be though and Cleveland responded with a 3-pointers from Hurst to go up by 10.
The double-digit lead only seemed to grow from there.
Game Photos (Jeffery Simmons)
Home away from home
The Pioneers wanted to be at home for the region final, but it was District 5AAA's turn to be the host this season. It didn't seem to matter though - Warren County's rabid fanbase swarmed Raider Arena for the finals.
Warren County fans arrived early - Bryson Cope left town at 11 a.m. and got to Cleveland before its school day ended - and in masses. Pioneer fans outnumbered the "home" squad over 2-to-1 and made their voices heard early.
The Cleveland student section - the Rowdy Raiders - got to do most of the cheering in the second half, but it still was drowned out at times by deafening "Warren County" chants.
It would be no surprise to see Pioneer Nation descend on Murfreesboro Monday for a win-or-go-home matchup at sectionals.
When addressing his team following the game, Sullens was short and sweet. He apologized to his team for not having them more prepared, addressed some issues that needed to be fixed and then made the one final salient point.
“That game is over. And we don’t have to think about it again. Let’s just move on,” said Sullens.
When the season began, the Pioneers had a running list of team goals. It looked something like this:
District regular season champs - Check!
District tournament champs - Check!
Home region game - Check!
Make it to the region final - Check!
Win at sectionals
Go to the Glass House
After the game ended, Sullens pointed out to his team that they’ve accomplished several of their goals and none of the others are out of reach.
The ultimate goal has always been to make it to the Murphy Center and play in the state tournament. Warren County is one of only 16 teams in AAA that will get a chance to punch a ticket Monday night.