ITALY — The gold and black faithful would have ridden Kenneth Norwood's monster double-double performance to first place in District 19-2A if not for Kerens High School's hot shooting — especially in the second quarter.
The state-ranked Bobcats edged Italy High School (15-5, 2-1) Friday at IHS Gymnasium, beating the Gladiators 75-74 behind 48 second and third-quarter points.
"Guys were down. They wanted this game pretty bad but it's one of those deals they knew they had a team beaten and didn't slam the door shot," said Head Coach David Ervin about the mood of the locker room after the loss. "They played hard. Without a couple of miscues and costly turnovers, we win the game. We saw Keith (Davis), Kevin (Johnson) and Kenneth (Norwood) play extremely well. It was big time. Ken's rebounding was exactly what we needed and he provided that spark inside. He told me he was ready and he delivered. It was his best game and if he keeps playing like that, we're going to be hard to stop."
Italy entered the game on an 11-game win streak and hadn't lost since the Dec. 3 matchup against UIL 3A Kemp High School.
Keith Davis II's 21 points — his second consecutive 21-plus point game — led the Gladiators, Johnson scored 20 points and Norwood added a 14-point and 13-rebound double-double. Senior Christian Lightfoot, who was three points shy of a double-double, scored seven points and pulled down 11 rebounds and senior Kevin Johnson chipped in six.
Kerens, which is the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches No. 13 boys' 2A basketball team, shot 14 percent from the field and hit only one of its four free throw attempts in the second quarter. Despite their torrid shooting from inside the arc and from the charity stripe, they were deadly outside of it.
Led by Buddy Sayles' five second-quarter 3-pointers, the Bobcats finished 5-for-7 from deep and scored their second highest eight-minute output of the game (21). In the three remaining quarters, Kerens finished 20-for-32 (62 percent).
They also outrebounded Italy 46-44. Sayles' 23 points led all players and Taymont Lindsey's 14 helped power the Bobcats in the fourth quarter. Missed free throws down the stretch — the Gladiators hit only six of their 13 shots in the fourth quarter — helped stop Italy's win streak.
As hot as Sayles' hand was in the second quarter, however, Davis and Johnson's were doubly so, hitting shots from every conceivable angle on "The Dome's" hardwood. It was almost fitting for his performance to come on a night the city honored the 1997 Gladiators — Italy's only state championship basketball team.
Given the duo's flipping of the proverbial light switch in the game's third quarter, Italy's loss, too, could have deemed surprising. Johnson helped his team score 23 points on 3-for-6 (50 percent) shooting from behind the 3-point line, traveled among the trees and invited contact for extra-point opportunities at the free throw line.
Both boys shut down opposing guards with stickum-like defense.
The Gladiators forced 16 turnovers on 13 steals by Johnson (6), Davis (3), Tylan Wallace (3) and Kendrick Norwood (1).
"I kept my composure and stayed focused and let my shot come to me. I was confident I would get into the flow of the game if I picked and chose my shots," Johnson said about catching fire in the third quarter. "I think we learned never to give up no matter the situation. We had that game won, but we beat ourselves with turnovers. We have a championship team and we're going to learn from the mistakes and bounce back harder."
Italy's sloppy ball-handling in the final 16 minutes of the game first allowed Kerens to erase a 31-29 halftime lead and then score a game-high 27 points — including And-1 baskets by 5-foot-10 point guard Dequalyn Lawerence (10 pts) and opportunity by 6-foot power forward Katerious Douglas — in the fourth quarter.
Italy will have a chance to rebound from their first district loss when they meet District 19-2A Cross Roads High School (7-8, 1-1) at 8 p.m. Tuesday at CRHS Gymnasium in Malakoff, Texas.
Fixing some of the problems, too, will help them build towards the Gladiators' Jan. 31 rematch with the Bobcats.
"We have to stay a little bit more composed in the later moments of the game and hold our heads up because we just played a really good game against a really good team," Ervin said. "We had a chance to beat them but made a couple of mistakes here and there that made that hard to do. If we take care of the ball and hit our free throws, the result is different. We were right there neck-and-neck with them and matched them bucket-for-bucket. They just made a couple more plays than we did."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.