JEWETT, Texas — The Gladiators' season may have ended, but it took an anomaly to stop their streak of 10 straight wins.
Italy High School fell 92-67 to Tenaha High School during Friday night's 2A regional semifinals at Leon High School Gymnasium, allowing its highest total of the season during the defeat.
The last team to near 90 points against the Gladiators' defense was Vanguard College Preparatory School. The Vikings won 86-49.
"[Their offense] wasn't anything we hadn't seen before, I just don't think we understood how fast they pushed the ball after a miss or make," Gladiator Head Coach David Ervin said. "They were fast and physical. They pressed us. They put a lot of pressure on us defensively that caused us to take quick shots or turn the ball over. They ran the same press the first half and we handled it well, but with some key players in foul trouble and others injured or out in the second, I couldn't keep our boys as fresh. Depth played a major role in the second half."
The (22-2, 13-1) Tenaha's Tigers knocked off New Summerfield, Broaddus and San Augustine High Schools to reach the regional semifinal. Two of the victories came via double-digit wins.
Italy (28-7, 12-2), the No. 13 team in the state per the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, defeated two of their last three opponents — Mart and Big Sandy High Schools — by an average of 25 points.
After trading blows during 25-20 and 19-14 second quarters, Tenaha exploded for 28 points in the third quarter. While Keith Davis II (10 pts) and Kevin Johnson (11 pts) scored the majority of their points in the first half, they and the Gladiator offense was held relatively quiet.
Italy scored 28 points in the second half with the help of Davis, Johnson, Jeremiah Washington, Christian Lightfoot and team-leading scorer junior Kendrick Norwood (12 pts). Only 10 of that total came in the final quarter.
Despite the loss, Ervin said his "historical" bunch has no reason to drag their feet.
"They played hard to the end and because of that, we felt no lead was too big to overcome. We just needed to finish and make shots when we had the opportunity," he said. "I told them it was an honor to coach a great group of guys and I hurt for them that it ended tonight. I told them how much I love being around them and I will carry on the memories of life. They came a long way from the beginning of the year until now. Going from being ranked almost 50 by the [Texas Association of Basketball Coaches] to into top 10 added more history to this school. This group put Italy basketball back on the map and they gained respect from so many other teams in the area through their hard work and class they showed throughout the year — including tonight."
Some of that "class" Ervin spoke about came during the waning moments of the playoff blowout when Tenaha Tigers' special needs player Ferdaveion Thomas entered the game. According to Shelby County Today, an online news source that covers Centerville, Joaquin, Shelbyville and Tenaha High School sports, the Gladiators were determined to let Thomas have his shot.
When Thomas got the pass and a chance to take a shot, however, a foul was called and seemingly his chance was gone.
Or so he thought.
Italy’s players began feeding him the ball — and attempting halfcourt shots for good measure — until he scored. They continued to pass him the ball and hoist up unmakeable shots an additional three times before the game ended.
Ervin said the character his boys showed on the court, more than points, stats and wins and losses, displays the foundation they helped lay in Italy and why they will rebound and return stronger in 2018.
"No one gave us a chance, but we proved them wrong. "We proved a lot of people wrong and gained their respect. It was a long and victorious season. They're the first group in a while that has advanced to regional semifinals because they put in all the necessary work to get where they did. From day one they had a vision that they wanted a chance to play in the state tournament. They almost did that. They had a chance.
"I work in the elementary school. Now, all those kids want to be just like this years' basketball team. Like this year's team wanted to be like the 1997 state championship team."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.