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Special season ends for Lady Pioneers

An all-time season for the Lady Pioneers has ended.

For the fifth straight time, Bradley Central sent Warren County packing in the region tournament, winning 45-21 in Manchester Monday night in the elimination postseason matchup. The Lady Pioneers finished the season 24-8 – the most wins in nearly four decades for the program.

“I’m proud of this group. It was a heck of a year and I wish we could’ve gone a little further,” said coach Anthony Lippe, who led the Lady Pioneers to their first 20-plus win season since 1999. “Bradley Central is a powerhouse. They’re tough.”

Kyra Perkins led the Lady Pioneers with 10 points in a night where the offense rarely got anything going. Karsee Weber paced Bradley Central, now 28-3, with 12 points, while Hannah Janes and Harmonie Ware each had 11 points.

A huge contingent of Pioneer fans showed up in Manchester to see a bit of history for the program. The Lady Pioneers were coming off their first region win since girls basketball went to 5-on-5 play 42 years ago and were in their first region semifinal in the same span.

Early on, the Lady Pioneers looked poised to battle the state powerhouse. Perkins got the scoring started with a putback, while Sable Winfree’s layup after a Bradley Central block made it 4-2 in the opening minutes.

The Lady Pioneers held their final lead at 6-4, with Perkins backcutting for an easy layup off a setup from Shelby Smartt. Weber gave the Bearettes the lead – one that would last the rest of the game – on a 3-pointer that made it 7-6 with 4:23 in the first quarter.

After the first four minutes, the Lady Pioneer offense was suffocated by Bradley’s long and lanky athletes. Warren County finished the game missing all its 3-point attempts (the only time in 32 games the Lady Pioneers didn’t hit a triple) and shot just 7-for-12 from the line, including 2-for-6 in the first three quarters when there was a chance to stay in the game.

Warren County went nearly 12 minutes of game time in the first half without a field goal, only breaking the streak in the final second before halftime when Perkins tipped in a miss at the buzzer. Even with the offensive drought, the Lady Pioneers were down just 21-12 at halftime.

Bradley Central swiftly pushed its lead once the second half started, hitting the Lady Pioneers with a haymaker as a 7-0 run put the underdogs on the rope. Warren County’s defense held the fort, holding Bradley Central scoreless the final 4:21 of the third quarter, but the offense never picked up.

Savannah Winfree did her best, coming off the bench to get a pair of layups to end the third, but Warren County was still down 28-16 going into the fourth. Once Bradley Central started the fourth with back-to-back buckets and Ware – who scored all her points in the final period – caught fire, it was Cinderella season for the Lady Pioneers was over.

Coach Lippe made sure to sub in his seniors – Jaden Smartt, Sydney Burger and Rudy DeArmond – in the last three minutes as they suited up for the Lady Pioneers for the final time. He knew they deserved their moment for all they’ve done for the program in three years, helping turn it from a perennial loser to on the cusp of a sectional bid.

“The senior been here with me the whole time. They were here when I stepped in as a first-year head coach and I wanted to pay respect to them. To be able to pull them out to get a standing ovation for all they’ve done for us meant a lot,” said Lippe.

He pulled out each senior in the final seconds as they were greeted with hugs and tears from teammates and coaches on the sidelines. Fittingly, Burger scored the team’s final points of the season, drilling a last-second free throw before leaving the court for the final time.

It was a sad scene for all the Lady Pioneers, but there’s also hope it’s only a momentary setback for another rise in the program next year. Warren County returns its top five scorers next year, including all-district honorees Shelby Smartt, Sable Winfree and Perkins.

With Mia Hobbs and Brienne Kelsey also on board, along with Savannah Winfree showing throughout the postseason she can handle a larger role in the post, coach Lippe knows there is potential to replicate this year’s success if everything is aligned next year.

“It’s a good feeling (having people back) and we hope everything is ideal next year. We obviously hope we can avoid injuries and stay healthy and get better,” said Lippe. “There are more things I’d like to do, both offensively and defensively. Each year, you have a different team and different skills.

“It’s going to be a quick turnaround. Sooner than you know it, it’ll be June and we’ll be in summer camp trying to figure things out.”

Bradley Central moves on to play in the region finals, where it will face McMinn County. The Lady Cherokees took down Coffee County 53-51 in overtime Monday, completing a District 5-4A sweep in the region semifinals. Any region awards for the Lady Pioneers would be announced at the region final Wednesday night.

Lady Pioneer scoring – Kyra Perkins 10, Savannah Winfree 4, Sable Winfree 2, Shelby Smartt 2, Mia Hobbs 2, Sydney Burger 1

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