Sports have a way of uniting a community. Athletes, especially student ones, competing for the pride of their town, school or traditions can provide the escape so many need after a tragedy.
And all they have to do is play, which is precisely what happened Wednesday night inside the dome in Italy.
The media circus that descended on the small town had long gone by the time the Lady Gladiators tipped off against the Frost Lady Polar Bears.
The antenna trucks were no longer out front to record students and parents arriving or leaving the campus. No questions were asked about what exactly occurred Monday morning inside the Italy High School cafeteria. The live tweeting of comments made by rattled teenagers had ceased.
All the hoopla outside was replaced with the sounds of rubber soles pivoting on the hardwood, cheers from two avid fanbases, and a leather basketball tickling the twine at either end of the court.
When the Italy boys got going about two hours later, it was business as usual. After all, there are still playoff spots on the line and the pride of a community at stake.
"We just had to come together today," said Italy girls' head basketball coach Laquita Walker after her Gladiators handily defeated Frost. "We played strong. We played together, and we just had to remember that we are doing this for each other. This was not just a victory in this game. This is a victory for overcoming what we went through this week. We just wanted to continue to be unified and stay Gladiator strong."
The Lady Gladiators led the Frost Polar Bears 49-25 after three-full quarters of play Wednesday night in the dome.
Brycelen Richards then drilled a corner three to start the Italy scoring in the second half. The long-range bucket drew a smattering of cheers from the nearly-full bleachers on the home side of the gymnasium.
For all intents and purposes, it was just another high school basketball game. Precisely as it should be.
The lead eventually grew to 30 points when Emily Cunningham, a 2018 McDonald's All-American Games nominee, grabbed an offensive board under the bucket for an easy two points about halfway through the quarter.
With 2:24 to play in the game, Richards drilled a straightaway three to double-up the Polar Bear 66-33.
Cunningham finished with a game-high 31 points, while Richards added 12.
"Those are my two seniors. When they go, we go. They make our team move. We are just looking for them to keep playing because as long as they are playing well, we are playing well."
The Lady Gladiators are now 3-5 in District 19-2A and one game back of Itasca for the final playoff spot.
Unfortunately, the Italy boys did not fare quite as well.
Frost jumped out to a 7-0 lead to force an Italy timeout with 5:21 to play in the first quarter.
Yet, even with a nine-point lead a little over three minutes later, it was clear the Gladiator half-court trap was beginning to frustrate the Polar Bears.
The pestering resulted in a Frost guard receiving a technical for slamming the ball along the baseline and Italy's Kendrick Norwood promptly drained both freebies. Norwood then splashed home a corner three a little later to pull the Gladiators back within three, 13-10, with under one minute to play.
The first quarter ended with Frost leading 14-10.
Marcos Duarte put the Gladiators on the board first in the second quarter with a three-pointer from the left wing.
The Gladiators followed a pair of Frost free throws with a 7-0 run in 45 seconds of game time — bookended by a couple of Norwood treys. The second three-pointer gave Italy its first lead in the ballgame, 20-18.
The scoring run was highlighted by Christion Washington, though. The 6-foot-2 big man stole a pass around midcourt, went around the back with a dribble to send a Polar Bear defender to the floor, and got the finger-roll layup to fall.
A second Polar Bear technical a little later in the game gifted the Gladiators two more points to halt a 6-0 Frost run with 2:24 to play in the first half.
The two teams entered the halftime locker room with Frost leading, 28-26.
Frost began the second half on a 9-2 run over the opening three minutes and change to prompt an Italy timeout.
A pair of Daylan Slade free throws kickstarted a 7-0 Italy run that inched the Gladiators closer, 39-35, with 2:52 to go in the third quarter.
Kort Holley then popped a corner three to close the quarter with Italy trailing, 45-40.
The two teams traded buckets for most of the first five minutes of the fourth quarter and Italy trailed 56-52 with 3:04 to play in regulation after a Washington layup along the baseline.
Another bucket by Washington followed by an offensive board and put back for Slade pulled the Gladiators within two, 58-56, as the clock ticked toward two minutes.
It would be the closest Italy got to tying or taking the lead again. Frost made the free throws needed down the stretch to hold on for the 66-60 win.
Washington led the Gladiators with 17 points, while Norwood finished with 14, and Slade and Holley both added nine points, each.
Durate chipped in six points. Both Al Waits and Escamilla scored two points and Adam Powell rounded out the Italy scoring with one.
The Gladiators are now 3-3 in district action and currently sit in the fourth spot of the standings.
Both the Italy boys and girls return to action Friday, Jan. 26 on the road against Itasca. The Lady Gladiators tip-off at 6:30 p.m. with the boys getting underway at 8 p.m.