KNOXVILLE—The Wildcats needed a big basket late in the game, and Tee Higgins hit one. With his team down by two, the sophomore stayed cool under pressure and hit a three-point shot with 3.1 seconds left to give Oak Ridge a one-point victory over Fulton in front of a raucous sold-out crowd at Jody Wright Arena in Knoxville on Saturday.
The dramatic all-out battle was the last regular-season game for the two top-five teams.
The Falcons dominated early, applying pressure that hurt Oak Ridge, and they led by as much as nine points through much of the fast and furious first half. The Wildcats were “out of whack” offensively, Coach Aaron Green said.
But Oak Ridge got back into the game behind sophomore Anthony Gibson, who came off the bench to score 10 points in the first half and 13 on the night.
They took a two-point 31-29 lead going into halftime with the help of Gibson and a one-handed dunk by Higgins with less than two minutes to play. Oak Ridge fans exploded with excitement.
“We came out and played bad defense at first, but picked it up in the second half,” said Higgins, who led the Wildcats with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Late in the game, with less than 12 seconds remaining, Higgins picked up a defensive rebound after a key missed free throw by Fulton, and he ran the length of the court, dribbling the ball behind his back before pulling up for a shot from behind the arc.
“Coach said we have to make some big shots, and I did,” Higgins said.
Pandemonium broke out when he hit the clutch three-pointer, and fans rushed the floor. Police officers and athletic personnel had to clear the floor for the final 3.1 seconds.
The Falcons were unable to score as time expired. A final three-point shot attempt by Yasmond Fenderson of Fulton fell short at the buzzer.
Oak Ridge (25-2, 16-0 District 3-AAA) led for most of the second half but never by more than six.
Higgins had other dramatic moments as well, including a buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter to give the Wildcats a 47-43 lead and a three-point shot with 1:11 remaining in the game to retake the lead at 56-55.
“This will definitely go down as one of the more dramatic, more memorable games that I’ve ever coached,” Green said.
Besides his 13 points off the bench, Gibson also had four assists. Junior forward Javien Johnson scored 12 and picked up four rebounds. Junior point guard Geevantay Gee had five points and four assists, senior Ted Mitchell had five rebounds and five assists, and Darel Middleton had two points, five rebounds, and two big steals.
“I’m just glad to come out with the win,” Mitchell said.
Top scorers for Fulton (22-3, 10-0 District 3-AA) were Fenderson and Kentel Williams, who each had 17. Joe Kimber added 10.
“It was probably our toughest team since Atlanta,” Johnson said. He was referring to the only two losses that the Wildcats have picked up this season, both out-of-state games in the Chick-fil-A Invitational in Tucker, Georgia, after Christmas.
Win or lose, it was a great game for both teams—and fans.
“Both teams pushed it to the limit,” Fulton Coach Jody Wright said.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn and get better,” Green said.
Coaches and players said the game helped prepare the Wildcats and Falcons for the post-season.
“We should be ready for anything that comes our way,” Higgins said.
Oak Ridge, the number one seed, will play next in the district tournament at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, February 14, at Knoxville Central, although it’s not clear yet who the opponent will be. That will depend upon the outcomes of other games earlier next week between Anderson County and Campbell County, and Powell and Central.
Oak Ridge came into the Saturday night game ranked number three in Class AAA in the Associated Press high school rankings released on Monday, and Fulton had been ranked number five in Class AA.
While the boys’ game was close Saturday, the girls’ game wasn’t. The Lady Wildcats lost to the Lady Falcons 71-34.
Oak Ridge Coach David Scott said Fulton is a good, talented team.
“We got back on our heels for whatever reason, whether it was the atmosphere or being young,” Scott said.
Oak Ridge turnovers led to easy baskets for the Lady Falcons, the Class AA state runner-up last year. Fulton’s height advantage also allowed them to dominate the boards.
Scott said the Lady Wildcats (18-10, 13-3) need to have more players get on the glass.
He said Oak Ridge was able to battle back later, and some team members responded well.
“We played good in some spurts, but that wasn’t good enough,” Scott said.
Top scorers for Oak Ridge were Amara Howard, with 13 points, Caelyn Thompson with eight, and Mykia Dowdell with five.
Fulton (17-8, 7-2) was led by Kay Kay Fain with 20 and Keke McKinney with 17.
The Lady Wildcats, the number three seed, will play next in a district tournament elimination game at 6 p.m. Thursday at Knoxville Central against the winner of the Wednesday night game between Clinton and Gibbs.