ITALY — If the UIL universe hasn't heard Italy is a bonafide contender in 2A girls' basketball, it may want to check to statistics, scores and standings.

They could also look to the Lady Gladiators 70-61 win against Kerens High School on Friday night at the Dome, Italy High School's "Hoosieresque" Gymnasium, as proof of their growing dominance in the classification.

"They came out and played hard and didn't quit," said LaQuita Walker, the IHS head girls' basketball coach. "Even when we were down [in the fourth quarter] or when Kerens put together runs, they still came back and fought. When they had opportunities to shut down they didn't and relied on on each other to find a way to win a game we needed."

Without the victory, Italy would have sunk to the middle of the pack, fighting for third or fourth place with Kerens' and Cayuga High Schools. With it, they are a LaPoynor High School loss away from leading the district in wins and entering the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches' Top 25 2A Girls' Basketball State Poll.

Despite losing 5-foot-11 primary ballhandler Emmy Cunningham and bench sparkplug Shaniya Johnson because of foul trouble, Italy first snubbed the Lady Bobcats comeback attempt then stifled it with defense and a critical late-game drive and dish by Decorea Green and And-1 by Vanessa Cantu.

"That was huge," Walker said. "Vanessa had had a rough game [until that point] and I had been on her to step up and make a play. She responded better than I could have ever dreamt and stepped up at the right time and when we needed it. She was big for us down the stretch."

Twenty-six points from senior Aarion Copeland didn't hurt the Lady Gladiators cause, either.

While Copeland, Green (18 pts) and Cunningham (14 pts) led Italy in scoring, Brycelen Richards (5 pts), Cantu (3 pts), Johnson (2 pts) and T'Keyah Pace (2 pts) provided the scoring punch the team needed to battle back against Kerens' late game flurry.

"I believe that the bench came out and did their job and worked really hard and kept the game going," Copeland said with a smile. "[The starters] should've controlled our fouls because our team needs us and we know the turnovers killed us. We made mistakes but played through them and didn't let them stop us."

Senior Kamiya Haynes scored nine of her 16 points in the fourth quarter, and sophomore Mya Lincoln (15 pts) drained a deep 3-pointer to bring the Lady Bobcats within three points. Behind its duo, Kerens ignited in the game's final seven minutes after being held to eight points in the previous quarter erased a six-point deficit.

Behind 12 fourth-quarter points by Green — including a pair of contested 3-pointers — and the guard's coast-to-coast, drive-and-dish ability, Italy's Lady Gladiators rose and crushed Kerens' resistance and extended the lead to nine points.

Despite the turnovers and foul outs, Cunningham said, the win was proof positive that Italy is dangerous regardless of what girl patrols the hardwood.

"We could have made more free throws and blocked out and the game was closer than it should have been but we'll get them next time," she said. "The important thing is what my teammates did when the chips were down and Shaniya or I weren't in the game. They finished the game strong without two of their point guards and showed they could do just fine without us when we're not on the floor. That's our true strength — depth. The just proved they don't need me out there in clutch situations. They can handle business for themselves."

The Lady Gladiators will face Cross Roads High School at 6 p.m. Tuesday at CRHS Gymnasium in Malakoff, Texas.

Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.