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Taylor powers Pioneers to region final

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Build the statue. Retire the jersey. CJ Taylor’s legacy is cemented.

Taylor powered the Pioneers back in the region semifinals, scoring 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Warren County beat East Hamilton 75-66.

“I can’t even explain what I just saw,” said coach Chris Sullens on Taylor’s legendary performance. “I want to go back and watch it again. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Taylor finished with a game-high 37 points, including a barrage of 3-pointers to bring the Pioneers back from a double-digit deficit in the final minutes.

The senior superstar hit six 3-pointers in the final 3:50 of regulation, the first cutting the Hurricane lead to 53-46.

Taylor was only getting started. He buried his second 3-pointer with 2:30 left, then proceeded to hit two more in the next minute.

By the time he hit his fifth triple with 31.5 seconds left, the Pioneers trailed 61-60.

Cade Pendleton hit two free throws to put East Hamilton back up three with 20 seconds to play, but Taylor had one more chance.

He hit an incredible, off-balance 3-pointer with two defenders in his face with 9.0 seconds left to tie the game.

In overtime, Taylor was the closer, hitting 6-of-6 from the line. Dee Spates put in the dagger, drilling a floater to put the Pioneers up four in the final minute of overtime.

Spates finished with 16 points, while Kaden Rutledge and Aiden Cummings scored seven points apiece.

Warren County will move into the regional finals, which are scheduled to be played Thursday at Cleveland. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. It will be a rematch from last year’s region semifinals, where the Blue Raiders ended Warren County’s season.

With the win, the Pioneers also punched their ticket to the substate for the first time since 1976. Substate is scheduled to be played Monday.

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Check out the full region semifinal game on WCS-TV's YouTube page!

Don’t talk trash to Taylor

Apparently East Hamilton didn’t read the scouting report on CJ Taylor. If they did, then the Hurricane players would’ve known better than to poke the G.O.A.T.

Late in the third quarter, Taylor had just eight points and was going to the line with his team down double digits. Taylor missed both freebies and, from afar, he heard the trash talk – “You’re obviously not Mr. Basketball.” When the player made the mistake of telling CJ he was outscoring the Pioneer star, Taylor just smiled and delivered a two-word rebuttal.

“Alright. Bet.”

Taylor proceeded to rip the Hurricane defense to shreds in the fourth quarter in overtime. Taylor scored 29 points in the final 12 minutes, including a stretch where he sank six straight 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.

His last shot was a thing of beauty.

With the Pioneers down three and the final seconds ticking off, Taylor was stopped at the top of the key and trapped. He dished to his right, finding Kaden Rutledge standing alone. Right as he passed it, he started running to the wing.

Rutledge passed it back to Taylor, even as he was smothered by a double team. It didn’t matter – Taylor shot the off-balance, 25-footer between a pair of Hurricanes and it hit nothing but net.

“That last shot to send it into overtime – it’s as tough of a shot as you will ever see and it hit nothing but net,” said coach Sullens. “He didn’t even draw iron on any of the last ones - it was nothing but net. He continues to amaze – I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Taylor made sure to let his coach know that being on the opposite side of him is a losing proposal.

“After CJ hit the tying shot, looked me square in the eye and said, ‘You would not want to coach against me because I’d beat you everytime.’ I can’t disagree with him. I don’t think East Hamilton could’ve done anything else,” said Sullens.

Taylor finished off the Hurricanes late, sinking four free throws in the final 30 seconds of overtime to seal the Pioneer victory. Before taking his last free throw, Taylor stood at the free-throw line with a smile as he stared at the Hurricane player who was talking earlier.

He was silenced. Taylor’s barrage of triples did enough talking.

Fueled by last year’s loss

When the Pioneers were trailing in the first half, Taylor started to get a bad feeling. Something about the flow of the game reminded him of last year in Sparta, when Cleveland’s suffocating defense send the Pioneers packing in the region semifinals.

This time around, Taylor and the rest of the Pioneer seniors weren’t satisfied with making the second round. And they definitely weren’t going to go out without a fight.

“Ever since we lost to Cleveland last year and I didn’t play well at all - It hit me hard to watch that game. When we got to (the region semifinal game) this year, I told coach Sullens, ‘I’ll never have that happen again,’” said Taylor. “At the start, I wasn’t playing as well and was having flashbacks to the Cleveland game. At halftime, coach (Camron) Bond told me to keep stroking it and it’ll fall. Once I saw the first one go in, I wasn’t going to stop shooting.”

His senior teammates had similar feelings. Dee Spates, who finished with 16 points, steadied the Pioneers late. He hit a crucial floater in the final minute of regulation, then dropped the dagger in overtime. His slicing layup put the Pioneers up 69-65 with 55.5 seconds left in overtime.

“We had to believe. We’ve been here before,” said Spates, who is coming off an MVP performance in the District 6AAA tournament. “Once we had the push, we believed in ourselves. We trusted our teammates and trusted the process. It worked.”

Aiden Cummings also embodied the team’s fighting spirit late, doing a little bit of everything in the second half to help push the Pioneers over the hump. He was also having visions of last year and wasn’t going to let the season end a step short of substate again.

“We didn’t want to go home – we didn’t want to end our season in the second round like last year. We want to go to the Glass House,” said Cummings, referencing the Murphy Center – home of the TSSAA state tournament.

Taylor sends shockwaves across the state

Nobody could come up with a way to adequately explain Taylor’s epic performance. People from all across the state wanted to chime in after the game.

Even Taylor’s teammates and coaches were mesmerized by his shooting display.

“I don’t know what I just saw. I’m going to love watching on film because I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sullens. “I’ve never seen a kid do what he did in the last two minutes. We were down 8-10 points – it wasn’t nip-and-tuck. If we missed one shot, we weren’t going to win. Every possession, we had to have and he had to hit the shot.

“I asked my coach Andy Jacobs if he’s seen anything like that. He said no. I asked everybody and nobody has seen anything like that.”

Cummings, who has been in many battles with Taylor, knew the exact moment his teammate was about to erupt.

“A guy on East Hamilton was talking to CJ about how he didn’t have many points. CJ said, ‘Alright - Bet,’ and then he went off,” said Cummings.

Eli Kuykendall had a front-row view of Taylor’s astonishing shooting, particularly the game-tying basket with 9.0 seconds left in regulation.

“We know he’s going to make it, especially tonight. When he shot it with three guys on him from 25 feet out and still made it --- I’ve never seen such a dominant performance. It was crazy,” said Kuykendall.

After the game, families brought their young kids over to CJ in hopes of getting a picture. Taylor obliged, taking time to visit with each kid after an exhausting – and satisfying – performance. The kids stared at CJ with amazement – as did the rest of Pioneer Nation.

Spates’ specialty sinks Hurricanes

Taylor put on a show to get the Pioneers into overtime, but Spates hit the game’s biggest shot. The ball was in the District 6AAA Tournament MVP’s hands as time ticked away in overtime and Warren County was trying to cling to a two-point lead.

When East Hamilton’s coaches called for their players to press up on Spates, he went to work. The senior unleashed a flurry of crossover dribbles, setting up his defender for the ultimate finisher. Just as the defender gathered, Spates sped past him, getting right to the rim and unleashing his patented floater to ice the game.

It was an impressive move, one Spates does with ultimate confidence.

“Every time, I know it’s going in. If I’m in the paint, it’s going in – it’s a bucket every time,” said Spates on the last basket. “It feels great – I just want to cry, but we aren’t done yet.”

Coach Sullens has entrusted Spates with his offense ever since the senior transferred to Warren County from Blackman two years ago. He’s seen Spates deliver time after time, especially in the clutch.

“He’s the best point guard around – we know he can get us what we want. He and CJ carried the offensive load at the end. That’s what Dee does for our basketball team,” said Sullens. “His performances lately are nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s just the moment is bigger now and he keeps performing at a high level.”

Spates had one scare in the second half when he was poked in the eye chasing a rebound. He was shaken up for a second, ultimately leaving the game to get checked on by the trainer. Before the Pioneers could finish shooting the free throws Spates earned, the senior point guard was sprinting back to the scorer’s table

“He got poked in the eye late and just said, “I’m going back in.” Dee and this squad – they just have a heart that is hard to explain,” said Sullens.

Charlie Dalton Gym sets the tone

Throughout the week, the most asked question in Warren County was, “Does anybody have a ticket to the game?” The game sold out in a flash Sunday morning, leaving Pioneer fans scrambling for a way to get into the game.

Plenty argued that Warren County should open the game up to more fans, but the school wouldn’t bend. Reportedly, there were less than 600 tickets released on the GoFan App for Tuesday’s game.

It still didn’t matter – it was deafening down the stretch in ‘The Dalt.’

“I’ve never played in a game like that. It was different. For the minimum tickets they sold, the environment was amazing,” said Cummings.

Coach Sullens hasn’t been shy about talking about the need for vocal fans in Charlie Dalton Gym. He got what he wanted against East Hamilton.

“Homecourt advantage is real. I’m not sure we win that game if it’s on the road. The energy in the gym really helped us,” said Sullens.

Warren County could get one more chance to play in front of its home games this season. If the Pioneers are able to win the region final at Cleveland, the substate game Monday, March 8 would be held in McMinnville.

Super subs help save the day

East Hamilton couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The Hurricanes were up 15-5 in a flash, drilling triples at will while Warren County struggled to hit easy layups.

It only got worse just three minutes into the game. Senior guard Dante Elam went down with a leg injury, one that kept him out the rest of the half.

Not long after, Kaden Rutledge picked up his second foul. Coach Sullens trusted his sophomore to try to play through foul trouble, but he picked up his third foul early in the second quarter.

Without his two wings – along with Aiden Cummings needing some breathers in a fast-paced game – coach Sullens had to go deep in his bench.

Aaron ‘Turtle’ Ashburn was great again, scoring three points, including two crucial FTs in overtime. He also had several big rebounds and played excellent backline defense, allowing the Pioneers to stay in a zone throughout the contest.

While Ashburn has been asked to expand his role the last month, Eli Kuykendall and Nate Elrod were thrown into the fire in the first half. They weren’t alone – Hudson O’Connor made a rare appearance as well.

The quartet of subs keep the team afloat in the second quarter, keeping the Pioneers within 10 at halftime, 37-27, when it could’ve gotten much worse.

“We had to put some young kids on the floor and I think they did a decent job. That’s a huge moment for some of those guys – Kuykendall, Ashburn and Elrod. We put in Hudson O’Connor and I don’t think he has played in our last 10 games. They did just enough to keep us in the ball game,” said Sullens.

Sullens told his subs to just play a smart game and don’t try to do too much, but Kuykendall still had a highlight play. The junior forward finished through contact, despite being nearly a foot shorter than Hurricane player he was up against at the rim. After the basket, Kuykendall flexed in the paint, firing up the Pioneers.

“I was just trying to do what coach told me. He told me not to try to do too much. I wanted to do the little things right,” said Kuykendall. “(Our bench) does the little things right. Turtle has really stepped up – he’s been amazing these last couple games. Coach has taught us to be content with small things and try not to overdo it.”

Fighting off elimination

Because of its great performance in the regular season – capped by a co-regular season championship – the Pioneers didn’t have to play any win-or-go-home games in the district tournament. They knew the region tournament bid was already in the bag, though it didn’t stop Warren County from winning the district tournament as well.

The team has had its back against the wall the last two home games. A loss to McMinn County or East Hamilton would have meant the end of an epic year, but the Pioneers never discussed it before either game.

“We’ve not talked about the season ending since the postseason started. I don’t want them to think about that – if we keep winning, we’ll keep playing,” said Sullens.

When the Pioneers trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half of Tuesday’s game, the end felt near. Free throws were rimming out, layups were missed and the Hurricanes continued to hold a double-digit advantage.

During one timeout, coach Sullens heard his seniors talking. Right then, he knew the fight wasn’t going to stop until the final horn.

“They said, ‘It’s not going to end,' over and over. It’s just a team that finds ways to win. When we’re in close basketball games, these guys find ways to win the close ones,” said Sullens.

Taylor made sure of it, putting on a shooting clinic in the final four minutes of regulation. While he didn’t know it at the time, Taylor was making his coach look like Nostradamus.

Nearly one month ago in an interview with the Warren County Sports Authority, Sullens was asked about the inevitable end of Taylor’s storied career. He predicted that it would be memorable when Taylor went out; He recalled that conversation again after the game.

“I told you a long time ago that the day CJ plays for his life, it’ll be the day you’ll see something you can’t explain,” said Sullens.

He was right – and the Pioneers will live to play at least two more games.

Elam shaken up

Dante Elam started the region semifinal with a 3-pointer from the corner. By the end of the night, he was leaving with ice packs strapped to his leg.

The senior took a nasty spill early in the first quarter, then immediately fouled to come out of the game. He didn’t return the rest of the first half, instead opting to go through treatment on the sidelines.

Still hampered by a leg injury, Elam decided he was going to gut it out for his squad. He returned to the game late in the third quarter and gave it his all down the stretch before fouling out.

Elam will likely undergo plenty of treatment Wednesday for his injury, but there is hope the senior will be back on the floor when the Pioneers travel to Cleveland Thursday for the region finals.

Rematch upcoming

Nobody will have to remind the Pioneers about the last time they faced off with the Blue Raiders. Warren County’s players all remember falling to Cleveland 51-32 in the region semifinals held in Sparta last year.

Cleveland was ranked No. 1 in the state when the teams last met and had 2020 Mr. Basketball JaCobi Wood on its roster. Wood is now playing major minutes at Belmont, but the Blue Raiders still have plenty of talent back.

Cleveland won the District 5AAA tournament, toppling East Hamilton 61-57 in the championship game. Since then, the Blue Raiders have beaten Cookeville 55-54 and White County 68-53 in the region tournament. Cleveland was also 2-0 this year against McMinn County, Warren County’s opponent in the region quarterfinals.

Thursday’s meeting will pit both No. 1 seeds from their respective districts in the Region 3AAA final. Due to the rotating schedule from year-to-year, Cleveland will be the host site Thursday night. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. Central.

Cleveland has been allowing 900 fans into its recent home games.

Both Cleveland and Warren County have already clinched spots in next week’s substate games. The winner of Thursday’s region final will host a substate game next Monday, March 8, while the loser will go on the road. Blackman and Siegel are the two teams on the other side of the bracket.

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