Nate Elrod had no time to think about being the goat. He chose being the hero instead.
The junior got his first career game winner Tuesday, swiping a steal against York and outracing the Dragons – and the clock – for a layup before the buzzer as Warren County picked up a huge 78-76 win in the Sonic Shootout. The victory halted a two-game slide and pushed the Pioneers to 7-5 overall this season.
Elrod’s final highlight, displaying the safety skills that made him one of the Pioneers most lethal tacklers this fall, came just seconds after he threw an errant pass on a last-second possession that could’ve won it for the Pioneers.
He made up for the turnover, and then some, by stealing the game – literally – from York by stepping in front of a pass at halfcourt and swooping in for a righty layup that rolled in with just 4.4 seconds left.
“(Nate) made a nice anticipation play late for a steal that gave us a chance to win,” said coach Chris Sullens, who saw his team build an early lead Tuesday, only to have to rally late to win. “Hopefully we can build on it and (start to) understand what it takes each night to win and bond together as a team. This group needs to realize it is time to be better – and be better in many phases.”
Elrod’s late-game heroics came after the Pioneers failed on several chances to potentially put the game away late. The Pioneers missed the front end of 1-and-1 situations twice in the last 90 seconds and had a pair of costly turnovers in the final 30 seconds, including one that was compounded by a foul that helped York tie the game.
Warren county was leading 76-73 in the final moments and looked fine with playing keep-away from the Dragons. That plan backfired in a big way when Kaden Rutledge had his pocket picked by Myles Leffew at midcourt.
Leffew raced to the other end, getting a layup to fall just as Rutledge made contact and the whistle blew. His ensuing free throw tied the game with 29.6 seconds remaining and gave the York guard a game-high 25 points.
Sullens had to dig deep in his bag of tricks after Rutledge’s fifth foul, as he took a seat beside Treyton Terry, the team’s other primary ballhandler who had already fouled out after scoring 17 points.
Without the team’s top two scorers, the Pioneers still looked poised to get a great look in the final seconds, but Elrod’s attempt to hit a cutting Eli Kuykendall was tipped away and taken away by Nic Smith.
Elrod returned the favor seconds later, noticing Smith wanted to get the ball to York’s top scorer – Leffew – and breaking on a lazy pass across the middle that he could take the other way.
Elrod’s final bucket capped a furious fourth quarter full of high-level shot making by both teams.
Terry started the highlights with a contorting reverse layup through traffic, ultimately getting a layup to spin in from the other side of the rim. His free throw that would’ve completed a three-point play spun out, but Kuykendall was able to tip away the rebound right to Elrod, who laid it up to give the Pioneers their first lead of the second half, 62-61.
York immediately answered with a Jackson Conaster triple from the corner, one of three he made on his way to 16 points, but Terry had a counter of his own with a pull-up jumper that knotted the score at 64 with just over six minutes remaining.
In the final minutes, there were four more ties as the teams dazzled offensively. Rutledge and Leffew traded pull-up jumpers at one point, while Elrod ran a perfect 2-on-1 break with Braylon Grayson that ended with Grayson getting a layup to fall that pushed the Pioneers in front 70-68.
After York tied the game on a backdoor layup, Rutledge responded with a cutting layup, then hit a nasty fadeaway jumper off a spin move that gave the Pioneers a 74-70 advantage.
Smith responded with a deep 3-pointer, launching from four steps behind the line and hitting nothing but net. Unfazed, Rutledge came right back out following a York timeout and drained a jumper from a right wing that made it 76-73 before the mad scramble in the final 90 seconds that culminated in Elrod’s game winner.
For the Pioneers, it was refreshing to see so many tough looks fall after struggling to top 50 points in any of their three contests before tipping off in the Sonic Shootout.
“Offensively, we were much more efficient. We also had 21 offensive rebounds that gave us opportunities we weren’t getting. We also shot the ball much better,” said Sullens.
Early on, it looked like the Pioneers may have too much offensive firepower for York to contain – something that hasn’t been the case for Warren County this season. The Pioneers were running and gunning out of the gate, led by Isaiah Cummings and Rutledge.
Rutledge hit two quick 3-pointers early, with the shots coming in the span of 30 seconds from the top of the key and left wing, respectively. It was part of a team-high 18 points for the junior, who has now scored in double figures three of the last four games.
Cummings, who scored all nine of his points in the first period, twice gave the Pioneers a nine-point lead in the first quarter - the first coming on a nifty finger roll that made it 17-8 and then again with a 3-pointer to push the Pioneers up 20-11.
York slowly reeled the Pioneers back in, highlighted by Smith showing his range on a pair of triples in the second quarter. The Dragon senior, who has already signed to play baseball at Missouri after finishing high school, scored 11 of his 23 points in the second quarter as York grabbed a 39-36 lead by halftime.
The Pioneers played catch up the entire second half, buoyed by a pair of Sawyer Seymour long balls and Terry’s relentless attacks of the rim to stay close in the third quarter. Warren County never got a safe lead until Elrod’s layup dropped home in the waning seconds and York’s desperation heave went way off the mark.
With the victory, Warren County advances to the consolation bracket finals to face White County. The two former District 6AAA rivals already battled once this year, with Sparta getting a key Tanner Paul 3-pointer in the final 20 seconds to win 46-43.
The Pioneers and Warriors will tip-off Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.
Pioneer scoring – Kaden Rutledge 18, Treyton Terry 17, Nate Elrod 10, Sawyer Seymour 9, Isaiah Cummings 9, Eli Kuykendall 4, Kaden Desmarais 4, Braylon Grayson 4, Chance Hunter 3