JEWETT, Texas — Most of the time, Italy High School's daring senior duo of Keith Davis II and Kevin Johnson rampage their way to stat sheet-stuffing, double-digit performances.
Though Davis II notched another 20-point performance during the Gladiators' 56-37 Tuesday win against Big Sandy on the hardwood of Leon High School Gymnasium, it was the many that outweighed the few.
"It's a great feeling to have someone like Tylan to step up, lead our bench and heIp with the scoring because it takes some of the pressure off of Kev and me," Davis II said about junior Tylan Wallace's impact during the regional quarterfinal victory. "Plus he brings so much more to the table with his energy, defense and hustle. It makes it better for everyone on the team. Gladiator basketball begins and ends with defense. The effort we got from our bench showed what happens when everyone brings something to the table to helps us get a win."
Big Sandy (16-9) boasted a team that had won back-to-back games and eight of their last 11. One of those victories — a 67-57 finish — came against District 19-2A rival and Texas Association of Basketball Coaches No. 15 boys 2A team Kerens High School.
The Wildcats also had postseason experience on their side. Head Coach Kevin Foster led Big Sandy to the UIL state championship the previous year, falling to reigning 2A king Canadian High School 77-72.
Samuel Richard, the lone returning junior from the state championship qualifying team, scored 14 points. The other seven players that logged minutes in the regional matchup combined for 23 points. That total was a mere nine-point difference from the incumbent star.
"Beating them was big for us," Gladiator Head Coach David Ervin said. "Big Sandy is just as good as Kerens and LaPoynor because they are well-coached and have some good, solid players — especially their guards. They almost had us down in the first quarter after we got off to a slow start, missed some easy lay-ups and were taking bad shots that didn't allow us to set up our press [defense]."
Italy turned a seven-point opening quarter into a 20-10 second quarter run, powered by eight points from Johnson, five from Davis II, four from Tylan Wallace and three from 6-foot-5 center Christian Lightfoot. Davis II led Italy in scoring with 21 points and had six assists and three steals, Johnson scored 10 and added three steals and Wallace chipped in 12 points, three rebounds and three steals.
Lightfoot, the game's leading rebounder, hauled in 10 boards and swatted away one shot. Despite the surge, the Wildcats again mounted a rally after halftime, scoring 14 points to the Gladiators' 10 and drawing within seven points at the close of the third quarter.
"Once the boys started to attack [Big Sandy's] zone with dribble drives and quick passes, we finally got into the flow of our offense," Ervin continued. "We were able to knock down some outside shots and make a couple of lay-ups to get us going. That stretch during the second and third quarters showed what a tough-minded team we have and how the tough district schedule taught them to be resilient."
Italy snuffed out a Wildcat fourth quarter rally, scoring 12 consecutive points and going on a 19-7 run to erase Big Sandy's regional tournament hopes. Wallace and junior Jeremiah Thompson, in reserve roles, combined for 10 points of that total.
The Gladiators will return to Jewett to face regional powerhouse Tenaha High School at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Leon High School Gymnasium in the regional semifinals. The Tigers, which lost to Big Sandy during last year's regional final, will come armed with a majority of that near-championship qualifying roster.
To Ervin, the solution to the Tenaha equation and the city's entrance into the first regional final in more than a half-decade is simpler than it seems as long as the Gladiator brand of basketball reigns early and often and the din from the Italy crowd makes Leon seem like The Dome.
"It was a packed house from top to bottom," he said. "We depend on a great fan to give us that extra boost. We are more concerned about how we're playing as a team more than what Tenaha has done in the past. They are a lot like us. They will be athletic and well-coached. They like to play an up-and-down style of basketball and they have some keys players that we must stop to give ourselves a chance to win. They aren't unlike any other opponent we've faced, though. We've played tough teams like Kerens and LaPoynor all season and have faced some in the playoffs. We're focused on grinding and keeping the Gladiator Way. The boys are ready for the challenge and they know what it takes to get the job done."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.