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It was the perfect song for the perfect night. Speakers were bumping Drake, players were dancing and the song every Pioneer knew was, “Back to Back.”

Warren County claimed its second straight District 6AAA title Tuesday night, beating White County 73-65 at Charlie Dalton Gym.

“I’m so proud of these guys. We battled through adversity and guys stepped up when their number was called,” said coach Chris Sullens. “We have guys who aren’t phased by this stage. They were ready to play.”

Dee Spates was named tournament MVP after a 13-point performance. The senior was unstoppable late, carrying the Pioneers to the finish line after seniors CJ Taylor and Aiden Cummings each fouled out.

Taylor had 28 points to lead the Pioneers, tying for the game high with Sparta’s Grant Slatton. Cummings also had 13 points for the Pioneers.

Warren County led for the final three quarters, building a 39-28 lead at halftime behind 21 first-half points from Taylor.

White County closed it to three, 68-65, with 20.5 seconds left, but Kaden Rutledge hit a big free throw and the Pioneers followed with a steal to seal victory.

Following the game, Taylor, Cummings, Rutlege and Dante Elam were all named to the all-tournament team.

Pioneer scoring - Taylor 28, Spates 13, Cummings 13, Aaron Ashburn 8, Rutledge 7, Dante Elam 2, Eli Kuykendall 2

Warrior scoring - Slatten 28, Tanner Paul 17 (all-tournament), Jake Davis 12 (all-tournament), Daniel Gentry 5, Thomas Paul 3

CLICK HERE for Painted Barn Media action shots

CLICK HERE for Painted Barn Media celebration shots

Here are some big storylines which emerged from the district finals:

The 7-0 run to start the second quarter

Aiden Cummings was big for the Pioneers.

After the first break, the Pioneers and Warriors were tied 18-18. It was the last time Warren County wouldn’t hold the lead.

Warren County started the second quarter on a 7-0 run and never trailed again. Taylor, who was phenomenal for three quarters, stared the second quarter with a three-point play. Cummings took over from there, grabbing a steal and feeding Spates for a layup before adding a putback to make it 25-18.

Cummings, who was coming off an 11-point, 15-rebound performance against Cookeville, was superb for the second straight game. He was just doing what his coach asked.

“We were in practice and coach pulled me off to the side and told me for us to be successful, I need to have 11, 12, 13 rebounds a game and score the ball better. I’ve been thinking about that and locking in,” said Cummings.

Phantom Technical on Taylor

With just seconds left in the first half, Taylor put the exclamation point on a dominant early performance. The senior star caught a pass on the right wing and drilled a deep 3-pointer right in Slatten’s face.

On his way back up the court, Taylor held his follow through and passed by Sparta’s star – and the regular season District 6AAA MVP. Slatten gave Taylor a slight nudge, seemingly harmless at the time.

When the whistle blew, both players waited as the referee signaled the technical. Taylor was stunned when the man in stripes pointed at him, ruling that his play was taunting. Taylor didn’t say a word – something the referee confirmed – but it didn’t matter apparently.

It was a weak call, one that seemed especially out of sorts after Sparta had been celebrating every long range shot it hit in the first half. It ruined what was a perfect first half from Taylor – he had 21 points at the break.

Fans on both sides weren’t pleased with the referees most of the game, for good reason. Nobody wanted to see the biggest game in the district decided with Taylor on the bench the final five minutes and Slatten dealing with foul trouble the entire second half.

GOAT sighting

Big time Pioneer supporter Brent Carden sent out this Tweet in the late hours Tuesday after the Pioneers claimed their second straight district title:

He's doesn’t have to sway the people here at the Warren County Sports Authority.

Taylor now has led the Pioneer basketball team to back-to-back district titles, sandwiched around winning Mr. Football and guiding the Pioneer football squad to its first winning season in 30 years. He’s the only Pioneer to rush for 3,000 yards and score 1,000 points.

There will likely be a waiting period to put Taylor into the Warren County Sports Hall of Fame, but maybe there shouldn’t be. He’s basically had two Hall of Fame careers – one on the gridiron and another on the hardwood.

It wasn’t shocking to see Taylor emerge as the best player on the court – when he was actually on it – Tuesday. He’s risen to the occasion time and time again for Warren County.

“You know when he’s ready to play. CJ has a competitive gene that others don’t have,” said coach Sullens. “He has a switch and the light comes on - it burned bright today. It started when we were playing Cookeville – He’s a guy who wants to win these type of games.

“You don’t have to get him up for this type of game. I wasn’t surprised by his play – when he hit the first 3-pointer, I told the coaches he was on. You could just tell.”

Taylor wasn’t shy about saying the Pioneers were going to win over the weekend, but it didn’t stop him from getting a few butterflies before tip-off. They went away quick though.

“I told Dee, ‘I’m a little nervous,” but really, if you aren’t nervous, you shouldn’t be playing in that game. I knew I had been here before, but it felt different. Once a couple shots went in, I felt good,” said Taylor.

Tuesday’s win had to feel especially sweet for the Pioneer superstar. Taylor and Slatten have been battling for district supremacy the last two years. Slatten has the regular season awards, the SEC basketball offer and the bigger stats, but Taylor now has two District 6AAA trophies. Checkmate.

Tournament MVP Dee Spates cuts down the nets (Painted Barn Media)

Spates had all the answers

Coach Sullens still recalls the first time he heard about Dee Spates. The Blackman transfer had showed up at Warren County High School and some of the current Pioneers watched him play. They relayed the message to their coach quickly.

“I had some guys message me and say, ‘Hey, there is this new kid here and I think he can play,'” recalled Sullens. “We brought him in for a tryout and it wasn’t long after that we put the ball in his hands.”

Nobody was happier than Sullens to hear ‘MVP’ chants come from a huge Charlie Dalton Gym crowd for Spates.

“Dee is the best guard we’ve ever coached. He’s the best guard in this district – he’s a matchup problem,” said Sullens.

When Bryan Kell called Spates’ name for the MVP, the moment hit home for the senior.

“I knew I was going to get MVP and I cried. It’s a good honor – I came here and this is my family,” said Spates.

His 13 points were huge and his passing likely set up 20 more points for the Pioneers in the title game. But perhaps the biggest thing Spates did Tuesday was make his coach comfortable in the clutch, settling down the Pioneers when Taylor and Cummings both fouled out.

“We don’t coach for 32 minutes – we coach for 30 minutes. We know what’s going to happen those last two minutes – Dee is just a tough matchup and it’s hard to get the ball out of his hands,” said Sullens. “Late in the game, we had some guys in there that may not have been ready to break the press. Our message was simple - Throw it to Dee and let him be the press break.

“He’s tough to guard – at the end of games, other teams are asking themselves, ‘who wants to guard him?’”

Taylor, who was last year’s tournament MVP, was happy to hand over his crown to Spates for a night.

“Dee deserved it. He survived those last five minutes without me and Aiden. I’m glad he got MVP,” said Taylor.

Dee Spates scores against the Warriors

Spates was determined to get the Pioneers to the finish line. He was going to get greedy when it came to hanging banners.

“We got one, we had to get another one,” said Spates. “I kept thinking of what coach has always told me - I’m trying to execute, get the ball in my hands and get to the free-throw line. Anything to get the win.”

His floaters never looked prettier; Sparta may have had the length on its front line, but it didn’t matter when the Pioneer speedster got in the lane. Spates got to his sweet spot, elevated and lofted precision shots right over the Warriors.

When Taylor was on the bench in the fourth quarter, Spates took over. He set up easy layups for Aaron Ashburn and Cummings (which turned into a three-point play) early in the period.

“Dee has all types of tricks up his sleeve, you never know when it’s coming or how it’s coming. I just have my hands up and stay ready,” said Cummings after the game.

Down the stretch, Spates was a blur. His biggest highlight was an all-sprint layup with 3:03 left. Spates weaved through the Sparta press, setting his sights on the hoop. The Warrior defense retreated, not knowing if Spates would unleash his floater or thread the needle for another layup.

Spates froze Cameron Stephens with a pass fake, side stepped the big man and flipped in a layup. It was a thing of beauty, a moment where all of Spates’ skills were at the highest level and Sparta had no answer.

Aaron 'Turtle' Ashburn played huge off the bench.

Turtle Power

Ever since he was little, Aaron Ashburn has been affectionally called, “Turtle.” It didn’t fit his game Tuesday – he was neither slow nor plodding on the court. He was going 100 MPH and throwing around his 6-foot-4 frame.

Turtle had a huge putback late in the first half, grabbing a loose ball and laying it in to give the Pioneer a 12-point lead, 36-24. He was even bigger in the second half when Taylor and Cummings both dealt with foul trouble.

Ashburn played the entire fourth quarter, scoring six points in the period. He hit two crucial free throws with 7:01 left, putting the Pioneers up 50-40. He added two more layups late, setting up shop on the block and showing great touch when Spates located him lurking near the rim.

“Aaron played an outstanding game. He hit two big free throws, boarded it well. The lights weren’t too big for him,” said coach Sullens.

Everybody will be focused on this year’s region run and are hopeful this senior-laden team can do more special things, but it’s good to know there is some talent staying put. Turtle is going to have to continue to power the Pioneers.


Warren County digs deep for the win

All season, coach Sullens has stuck with his starters. Taylor, Spates, Cummings, Elam and Rutledge have played over 3,000 combined minutes this season.

Rarely have the Pioneers played a rotation more than seven guys and the team’s bench had only 101 points through 22 games.

When foul trouble plagued Taylor, Cummings and Elam Tuesday, Sullens had to go to his subs. He got super play from all of them.

Eli Kuykendall hit two gigantic free throws with 2:05 left, answering a big 3-pointer from Sparta, and had game-sealing steal with 13.4 seconds left. Nate Elrod stepped up and played big minutes in the second quarter when Elam was saddled with three fouls. And Ashburn’s exploits – already mentioned above - were immensely important to the victory.

Sullens had all the confidence in the world that his bench would come through if called on.

“We talk to the guys every day and tell them at some point in time you have to step up. Your number is going to get called and you never know when it’s going to be,” said Sullens. “When your number is called, we expect you to be able to step up and do what we ask you to do – kids did that tonight.

“I think our kids are comfortable in these moments. The more times you play in these moments, the more comfortable you get. The lights didn’t get to them.”

It didn’t hurt that Kuykendall, Elrod and Ashburn were feeling the love from their senior teammates.

Taylor picked up his fourth foul with 42.4 seconds to play in the third quarter. He sat down and didn’t return until there was 5:57 left in the fourth quarter. Just 37 seconds later, he was gone for good.

CJ Taylor was the ultimate cheerleader in the final minutes.

For the last 5:20, Taylor was the team’s best cheerleader while sipping on a strawberry slushie from Sonic. All he could do was watch and cheer on his fellow Pioneers.

“CJ and Aiden were good cheerleaders on the bench. I told CJ, ‘You have to be a good cheerleader because you’re not going back in.’ It means a lot to the guys. They let the guys know they have confidence in them,” said Sullens.

Taylor was impressed with Ashburn and Kuykendall, two guys who have to battle the senior star in practice every day. When the script flipped on game night and Taylor was the one watching them, he had a blast celebrating his teammates' success.

“Turtle and Eli stepped up big. They did some things I didn’t know they could do,” said Taylor.

Cummings concurred, saying, “It was sad because it’s my last district game and I wanted to finish it on the court, but when I was out and saw how good we were doing, I knew I could trust my teammates.”

Kaden Rutledge’s clutch shots

Kaden Rutledge was big down the stretch for the Pioneers.

Rutledge has been asked to be more of a defensive stopper than scorer the last two years for the Pioneers. He’s done his job well, even being named to the all-defensive team this season.

It doesn’t mean the sophomore, who piled up points in bunches at WCMS, has forgotten how to score though. He showed that he can still fill it up in the clutch against Sparta.

With 4:36 to go, Rutledge was four steps behind the three-point line when Cummings passed out a triple team in the post. The sophomore never hesitated, launching a long triple that hit nothing but net. It gave Warren County its largest lead of the game, 59-45.

The ball found Rutledge again late when the Pioneers needed points to most. After watching White County cut a nine-point lead to just three in the span of 30 seconds, Rutledge was fouled with 20.5 seconds left. He slowly walked the length of the court to shoot two shots. He hit the first, making sure the Pioneers kept it a two-possession game.

Rutledge finished with seven points and was named to the all-tournament team. He’s going to be a pillar for the Pioneer program for two more years.


Mitchell discusses the district championship

Every time Warren County and White County face off, it pits best friends against each other on the sidelines. Sullens and Warrior coach Eric Mitchell are very close, usually talking 4-5 times a week during the season.

Mitchell was gracious after the game, giving his friend – and the Charlie Dalton Gym crowd - lots of praise for having the Pioneers ready to win a title.

“I didn’t think we played our best, but Warren County had a lot to do with that. Coach Sullens had them ready and this atmosphere was different than we’ve played all year – we haven’t played in that loud of a crowd all year long,” said Mitchell. “You have to take your hats off to Warren County and coach Sullens. Last year, late in the game we were up seven and made mistakes and they capitalized on it. Tonight, they just beat us from start to finish.

“We tried to battle back, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

White County’s coach also had love for the two Pioneers who have won MVPs in the last two district tournaments.

“CJ came out ready to play. He matched us point-for-point in the first quarter and then they pulled away from us and we never could get over the hump,” said Mitchell. “They outrebounded us; Dee Spates played phenomenal and didn’t turn it over.”

Chris Sullens was full of intensity Tuesday for the finals.

Sullens proud of the program

Last season, Warren County got its first title in 43 years. It was huge validation for Sullens, who had promised when he was hired that he would get a title for the Pioneers or they could fire him.

This year, Sullens was back at a familiar position at the end of the district tournament. He climbed the ladder, grabbed some scissors and cut down the nets.

There wouldn’t be anybody who could call this win a fluke. And any doubters, like some of the coaches and media who picked the Pioneers to finish second in the district, were forever silenced.

Sullens knows his program is established now.

“We’ve built the culture. We have great assistants who do a good job of making the guys know what we want. Very rarely are we not on the same page. Win, lose or draw, we come back to work the same day and get after it,” said Sullens. “Coach (Adam) Wood used to call Sparta and Cookeville the unicorns – we couldn’t play with them consistently at the start. Our coaching staff talks about it every day – this is type situation we expect to be in now.”

There are plenty of next steps for Sullens and the Pioneers though.

“We want to win a region championship. I want to go to sectionals. I want to be in Charlie Dalton Gym playing in a sectional game. The glass house is the ultimate goal,” said Sullens.

Winning Tuesday wasn’t something Sullens was going to overlook though. It’s huge for the Pioneers to win a district title, particularly doing it at home. These huge moments are going to resonate with the kids who will one day represent Warren County on the biggest stage.

It's all family with the Pioneers.

“We are showing the Feltons at Irving College and the Robledos at Morrison – those kids are seeing this – our program at this level. Twenty years ago, kids were seeing us get the crap kicked out of us and they thought that was what was going to happen to them,” said Sullens. “Now, Kaden Rutledge comes in and says he’s going to win four in a row. I thought that was crazy, but now he’s won two.

“Success breeds success. Our guys have bought into it.”

The best thing for Sullens is he’s not having to be the one to do all the talking now, even though he can still be long winded when it matters. With a group of seniors who have pushed the program to new heights, Sullens spends more time listening to the guys and watching them coach up their teammates.

“I listen to the guys and they give a lot of coach speak. I hear them says things coach Wood says in practice, things coach (Camron) Bond says. They’re listening to what we’re saying and applying it. I’m proud of them,” said Sullens.

McMinn County awaits

For the second straight year, Warren County will be at home for the first round of the Region 3AAA tournament. The Pioneers will play McMinn County at 7 p.m. Saturday at Charlie Dalton Gym. A full preview will come later this week on the WCSA website.

Setting up the Region 3AAA tournament, here are the matchups (home teams listed first):

D6AAA No. 1 Warren County vs. D5AAA No. 4 McMinn County

D5AAA No. 2 East Hamilton vs. D6AAA No. 3 Stone Memorial

D5AAA No. 1 Cleveland vs. D6AAA No. 4 Cookeville

D6AAA No. 2 White County vs. D5AAA No. 3 Walker Valley

This season, the higher seed in each game will be the host team in the region tournament. In years past, the region semifinals and finals have been played at a neutral site, but the rules were changed for just this season for COVID.

Only two teams advance from the region tournament, so the Pioneers will have to win two games to earn a bid to the sectionals. Because of its status as the No. 1 seed from District 6AAA, Warren County can host its first two games in the region tournament.

If the Pioneers reach the region finals, they would go on the road if District 5AAA champion Cleveland was the other team in the matchup (Cleveland beat Warren County to end the Pioneers' season in the region semifinals last year). If the Pioneers make it to the finals and face any other teams, they would play at home.

The final results of the district tournaments were:

District 6AAA

Warren County 73, White County 65 (Finals)

Stone Memorial 54, Cookeville 51 (Consolation)

District 5AAA

Cleveland 61, East Hamilton 57 (Finals)

Walker Valley 60, McMinn County 48 (Consolation)

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