THORNDALE, Texas — Regardless of sport, championships have been few and far between for the little city of Italy.
The current collection of boys' and girls' basketball teams, however, seem primed to test both fate and history — especially the Lady Gladiators team that steamrolled through their latest obstacle.
Italy shut down Rogers High School's offense and beat the Lady Eagles 65-55 on Wednesday night during the Thorndale High School Tournament at THS Gymnasium.
"The best thing that came from this tournament was that we learned how to fight for victories," said LaQuita Walker, the head girls basketball at Italy High School. "No game was easy every game We had to depend on each other from tip off to the last buzzer. That's what we will use to build on going back into district play. This week epitomized the slogan, 'We All We Got." And that's what we did, no matter the team or obstacle — go out and get it done."
Defeating Rodgers didn't only meant the second tournament title of 2016, but it also marked the (18-3, 1-1) Lady Gladiators' fifth consecutive win — the longest streak of 2016 since back-to-back-to-back victories against All Saints Episcopal School and Whitney and Mildred High Schools in early December.
While the Lady Gladiators were Aarion Copeland, Emmy Cunningham and Decorea Green-powered against Rogers — as they were for the majority of the tournament — Walker said it was her reserves that really made the difference during the hardest part of the games.
"We needed everyone on the bench from Vanessa Cantu to Brycelen Richards to Shaniya Johnson to Oleisha Anderson, but none more than T'Keyah Pace," she continued. "She was a leader among leaders and our sixth man off the bench. She knocked down big shots at critical times, her defense is undeniably one of the best I've seen. The funny thing is that she's still growing and only scratching the surface of her potential because of her willingness to learn."
Aside from the performances of Cunningham (19 pts), Copeland (17 pts), Green (16 pts) and Richards (11 pts) each of the reserves scored key baskets or forced a crucial turnover with their suffocating brand of defensive pressure. In each of the four games, on average, Italy's premier varsity girls team forced 20 turnovers in 16 quarters of high school basketball.
If you're counting, that's 100 in four games.
The commitment to defense — perhaps more than offense — it the staple and the trademark Copeland, Cunningham, Green, Richards and their head coach all said reflects the blue-collar nature of the city's residents.
"Everyone on the team contributed this tournament, just like everyone evolved as a leader," Cunningham said. "We're going to grind you down defensively and if you try to double cover Aarion, Decorea or me, we have a team full of players that can hurt you for making that mistake. Brycelen and Shaniya hit threes in critical moments and T'Keyah is as dangerous as any of us in the open floor."
Therein lies the danger, Cunnigham said, of team's making the mistake of thinking they are a "Big 3." Rather than be limited to three options, she noted they are closer to being a "Big 11."
The newly-crowned Thorndale Tournament Champion Lady Gladiators and their gold streak may be a real and true situation the rest of District 19-2A will have to deal with once the New Year comes and goes. That may go double for the first team to face them out of the gate — Itasca High School.
"This tournament was great to show our endurance," Walker said. "We wanted to be basketball-ready and that's what they showed me. They showed me they wanted it more than any other player on the court and banded together to make it happen. They encouraged one another, motivated one another, believed in each other and stepped up when someone went down. As a coach, that's an awesome sight to see. It wasn't just the girls, either. My assistant Tina Richards is always on point and where I lack, she makes up. She made some great calls to keep us in the game and showed that in the end — for us — it's all about unity."
The (11-5, 0-2) Lady Cats, which opened district play with back-to-back losses, will face Italy at 6:20 p.m. Tuesday at Itasca High School Gymnasium.
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.