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Warren County crushes the Cherokees

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Region wins are becoming second nature for the Pioneers. Warren County took down McMinn County 62-46, earning its third bid into the region semifinals in four years.

CJ Taylor led the way with 22 points while Aiden Cummings scored 17 - 15 coming in the first half - as the Pioneers battered the Cherokees in the paint.

“We told the guys after the game that they have really changed this program. They’ve done something in three of the last four years that before hadn’t happened in three decades,” said coach Chris Sullens. “We have more goals though. We’ll regroup, get back to work and be back here Tuesday.”

Warren County (18-6) led 30-15 at halftime and never saw its lead drop below double figures in the second half. Dee Spates helped seal the deal, scoring 11 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Warren County will face East Hamilton Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Hurricanes beat Stone Memorial 66-38 Saturday.

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Setting the tone early

It can be easy for a team to have jitters in the first minutes of a big game, but Warren County looked calm and comfortable Saturday night. The Pioneers busted the game open early, starting with a 9-2 run in the first 2:40.

CJ Taylor was everywhere, scoring five points, grabbing two rebound, swiping two steals and adding an assist. The Pioneer coaching staff, including coach Sullens, could been seen smiling on the bench after their team’s first offensive possession. Taylor didn’t waste time, launching from the left wing and draining his first triple.

They knew what most opponents have come to find out the last two years – if Taylor gets cooking early, he’s hard to stop.

“It felt good,” said Taylor of his first shot. “I wasn’t on like I was against Coffee County [when Taylor hit eight 3-pointers], but it seems like if it’s a close game, it’s going to go in.”

Taylor added a steal and score to make it 5-2, then fed Aiden Cummings on a fast break. Cummings sealed the run by bullying his way to the rim for a layup, forcing McMinn County to call an early timeout.

Cummings takes over first half

Aiden Cummings scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half.

For long stretches Saturday, it wasn’t a question of if the Cherokees could beat the Pioneers – they couldn’t. McMinn County had to be asking itself if the team could at least beat Aiden Cummings.

The Pioneer senior center has been fantastic in the postseason, but he hit another level in the first half against the Cherokees. At halftime, Cummings had scored as many points on his own (15) as McMinn County had as a team. His domination helped the Pioneers lead 30-15 at the break.

After scoring a bucket early in the third quarter, Cummings didn’t score again. He still finished with 17 points though, his highest point total this season. Cummings has now scored 41 points in three postseason games, good for 13.7 points per game. He’s also averaging nearly eight rebounds a game in the last eight days.

During the regular season, Cummings averaged 8.0 points and 3.5 boards per game. His ability to be a reliable third option behind Taylor and District 6AAA tournament MVP Dee Spates has taken the Pioneers to another level.

“Aiden is big. If he’s not going, our team is stagnant. He completes our team when he’s dominating the glass. He’s playing his role really well,” said Taylor.

Cummings doesn’t mind being a role player – he thrives at it. But Saturday, the Pioneers fed him the ball in the first half like he was a superstar. Cummings played like it too.

“They didn’t like contact – they weren’t going to front me and weren’t blocking out. Coach Sullens said, ‘Take advantage of it’ and coach (Adam) Wood said, ‘Get me the ball’ and that’s when things turned,” said Cummings. “It’s better when I get rolling early, it helps me out and helps the team out.”

Another key stat during Cummings’ run of scoring has been his accuracy at the charity stripe. Cummings is shooting 17-of-20 in the last three games from the line, good for an 85-percent mark. During the regular season, Cummings shot 49.2 percent from the line.

Cummings just wants to do whatever it takes to help the team win.

“If I’m not scoring or rebounding, it’s more for them to do and I’m not a factor. I have to help the team out,” said Cummings.

Taylor can’t be stopped

CJ Taylor finds ways to score no matter how many defenders are around.

Teams are still trying to figure out exactly what it takes to stop CJ Taylor from scoring. At this point, there may be no answer – you have to just hope he misses. You can’t stop him from getting to his sweet spots.

Even on an off night from behind the arc and at the line – Taylor’s lone triple was his first and he made just 7-of-13 free throws – the senior forward still found a way to score 22 points against the Cherokees. He now has scored 20 or more points in 10 games this season, including 28 Tuesday in the district championship game.

Taylor’s versatile game makes it hard to know how to defend him. He’s had games where he’s cooked teams from deep (He hit 15 triples combined against Coffee County and Stone Memorial on back-to-back days earlier this month). He can bully people at the rim, like Tuesday when he hit 11 field goals against the Warriors. Taylor also has three different games where he hit more than 10 free throws, including going 10-for-10 in the district semifinals against Cookeville.

In the regular season, Taylor shot 53.2 percent on twos, connected on a team-high 43 triples and hit 77.3 percent of his free throws (99-of-28).

Against the Cherokees, Taylor knew he could go wherever he wanted.

“I knew I could get to their hip at all times. The reason they didn’t run man was because they didn't have anybody to guard me or Dee. When they went man, you could sense it. They knew they couldn’t guard either of us, so I wasn’t going to settle for a 3-pointer. I was going to the rim each time,” said Taylor.

Taylor scored efficiently in the half court, but his highlight plays came in transition. Taylor dazzled the Pioneer crowd late in the first half on one coast-to-coast journey.

After grabbing the board, Taylor took off, hitting peak speed at halfcourt. With the defense converging, Taylor pulled the ball behind his back and dribbled through his legs to split a double team. He finished over another defender at the rim, dropping the jaws of fans.

His only issue Saturday was a close encounter with PA announcer Bryan Kell. With just over three minutes to play, Taylor tried to go for a steal on the press and ended up flying over the table and into Kell’s lap.

The crowd went wild for Taylor’s effort, but got a little nervous when Taylor limped off the floor. Warren County was up by 17 at the time, so Taylor never had to reenter the game. He left the gym with a bag of ice on his foot.

Asked if he’d be good to go Tuesday, Taylor didn’t hesitate – “Of course.”

Quick hitters from the fourth quarter

Dee Spates scored 14 points Saturday.

Dee Spates was generally quiet offensively against the Cherokees following his MVP performance against White County. Spates was content with letting Cummings and Taylor pound away in the post, many times of his passes.

In the final three minutes, Spates took control. He scored 11 of his 14 points in the final quarter, including sinking 9-of-10 at the line. What coach Sullens said after the White County game applied again against the Cherokees.

“We coach for 30 minutes because we know what’s going to happen the last two minutes. It’s hard to get the ball away from Dee and he’s going to make good decisions,” said Sullens after his senior point guard’s MVP performance.

He closed out McMinn County in the region quarterfinals.

Kaden Rutledge

Sophomore Kaden Rutledge hasn’t hit a lot of shots this year, but his makes always feel like backbreakers for the opponent. Rutledge iced the game against McMinn County, drilling a 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 50-33 shortly before Taylor went flying over the scorer’s table.

Rutledge finished with just seven points, but that 3-pointer with 4:37 to play felt like it ended the game. Heads went down on the McMinn County side when Rutledge put in the dagger.

Kaden Desmarais

Kaden Desmarais had a fun moment when he got on the scoreboard in the last minute, but the junior reserve center probably didn’t expect to get chided by his teammates for scoring. It was playful ribbing though, coming from the Pioneers’ disappointment of Desmarais not showing off his hops.

Desmarais is the best – and maybe only – dunker on the Pioneers. In practice, the junior has no trouble rocking the rim.

In the final seconds, coach Sullens took out his starters and went with the subs. McMinn County was still pressing, but nobody figured Desmarais – a 6-foot-4 center – would go long to beat the defense. He caught up to a deep pass and had a runway to the rim.

All his teammates, and the coaching staff, were on their feet when Desmarais closed in on the basket. Instead of going in for a huge stuff, Desmarais easily flipped in the layup.

Coaches always say substance is better than style and two points is two points, but Desmarais had the green light to dunk and didn’t. He’s going to hear some light-hearted jokes at practice.

Talking to McMinn County’s coach

The WCSA caught up with McMinn County coach Ed Clendenon after the game. He had nothing but good things to say about the Pioneers.

“We knew that Warren County is very athletic. They got a very well-coached team. Obviously, when you win a district championship, it’s not by accident,” said Clendenon. “We felt like we may have a little bit of an advantage inside and I don’t think we were quite patient enough to take full advantage of that. We missed a lot of easy shots early that really hurt us and got us behind the 8-ball.

“Warren County played super well and has a really, really good team.”

As for his team, Clendenon was happy to see the court all winter, but it was never easy.

“This has been the hardest season we’ve been through. Our school and administration have been so great to let us play through this pandemic,” said Clendenon. “It was hard though – half our team was virtual, half was in school, then we were all virtual for a while. There has been no continuity. It’s really affected our practices – it was tough trying to rev up for practice after being home all day.

“It’s really hurt this team. We ended up third in our district – I thought we could challenge for first or second if we kept improving. It seems like at the start of February, we hit a wall.”

Catching up with Sullens

WCSA sideline reporter Ansley Mullican talked to coach Chris Sullens right after the game Saturday:

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