The final horn sounded and Fulton celebrated its 60-57 win at Highlander Gymnasium Friday evening. 

Trey Morrow’s 3-point shot had been just off the mark as time expired. The sophomore has hit multiple buzzer-beaters in District 4-AA games already in just 1.5 seasons of high school basketball. But the game was even closer than that. With 19 seconds left, Scott High forced a turnover while down just one to give itself a shot at winning the game.

It wasn’t to be, and Fulton — a brash, veteran team led by McDonald’s All-American nominee Edward Lacy and looking for a return trip to Murfreesboro for the Class AA state tournament — had reason to celebrate. 

But the celebration was noteworthy.

“It’s been a long time since Fulton has been this happy about beating us,” Jack Butts — whose sons and daughters have been excelling on the court as Highlanders for more than a decade — said. 

Then he said something else that made sense: “First you have to get their attention. Then you have to start winning some of these games.”

Scott High has accomplished the first part. The Highlanders went 0-2 last week, as their best-in-the-state 16-game winning streak and top five statewide ranking came to a screeching halt and saw them tumble to third in the District 4-AA standings. But there was nothing to be disappointed about. If anything, there were lessons learned.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” Scott High head coach Jordan Jeffers said after the Highlanders’ six-point loss to Alcoa on Tuesday. After Friday’s game, he reiterated the lesson: “If we’ve learned anything this week it’s that we belong. We’ll get better and we’ll win a couple of these before the season ends.”

That’s the next step for Scott High. They have indeed gotten the attention of the rest of District 4-AA. Alcoa’s hometown newspaper, the Maryville Daily Times, called the Tornadoes’ win over the Highlanders on Tuesday “an upset.” On paper, it probably was. In reality, it probably wasn’t. But a program that has long been disrespected by its peers in both football and basketball is now commanding respect. On Friday, it was obvious that the Highlanders had the respect of Fulton coach Jody Wright. 

In years past, the Highlanders might’ve started good and then folded against the best teams in East Tennessee. This year, they’re just a breath away from winning. On the road Tuesday, they were up by as much as 12 against an Alcoa team that had completely dismantled a solid Class AAA Powell program a couple of weeks earlier. And at home on Friday, they led at various points throughout against a Fulton team that was playing for the Class AA state championship 10 months ago.

Here’s the biggest difference: Last year, that Fulton team defeated Scott by 35 points in the district semifinals. This year, the Highlanders gave the Falcons all they wanted — and then some. This year, the Highlanders had a young sophomore who doesn’t get a whole lot of attention outside Scott County — Trey Morrow — who was every bit as good as Fulton’s McDonald’s All-American nominee. (Speaking of disrespect, District 4-AA’s coaches came within one vote of leaving Morrow off the all-district team as a freshman last year. You can be reasonably sure that won’t be repeated this year.) And in just a few short years, Highlander Gymnasium has gone from two-thirds empty, where you could hear people talking on the other side of the gym during a loss, to Friday’s atmosphere that even Wright noted on Twitter, with a standing-room-only crowd creating an environment few people want to walk into as the opposing team. That’s what Jeffers and his kids wearing the striped britches are building.

There’s a point where just giving the bigger, supposedly better Knoxville teams “all they wanted” won’t be enough. And that time is now. Scott has their attention…now it’s time to start winning some of them. And ample opportunities remain.

That’s the good thing about basketball. A single game rarely spoils your season. The Highlanders lost twice last week, yet all of their preseason goals remain intact. They wanted to win 20 games; they’re four wins away. They wanted to host a region quarterfinal; they still can.

In just 10 months, Jeffers’ team has gone from being mercy-ruled by state tournament teams to pushing them to the wire. They’ve gone from being in awe of college prospects to standing toe-to-toe with them. The next step is to beat them. You can bet there won’t be very many — not even the ones from Knoxville who are used to thumbing their nose at poor ol’ Scott County — who will be betting against the Highlanders to do just that.

From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.