ITALY — Italy's 52-33 finish against Frost High School on Tuesday night at Italy High School Gymnasium didn't just mark the Gladiators' eighth consecutive win, but it also marked the fourth game of the season the defense held a team to fewer than 35 points.
Italy guard Keith Davis II said their defense — which posted three of those games in the last five games — could be summed up in three words that define how they've played on that side of the ball this season.
"Aggressive, intense and tenacious,” he continued. “We like to put pressure on the ball handlers to turn defense into easy offense. It's been important during the win streak because when we apply pressure teams aren't able to set up an offense and have to play at our pace instead of theirs."
Through miscue after miscue, Frost (14-5, 0-1) scored just nine points — as a team — in the first half against Italy (13-4, 1-0), their lowest halftime total this season outside of the seven put up during the 64-46 loss to Maypearl High School.
Junior forward Garrett Smith, the Polar Bears' leading scorer, scored 18 points on four 3-pointers – most of which were in the second half. Smith's performance mirrored that of the rest of his team, as outside of his production, Frost's offense was virtually absent in the game’s first 16 minutes.
And while Frost floundered in the first half, Davis II, Christian Lightfoot, Kevin Johnson, Tylan Wallace and the Gladiators felt more than obliged to take advantage. Led by senior Davis — who led his team with 13 points — Italy was able to outscore Frost 27-9 on the scoreboard during the Bears’ listless first half.
The win was that much sweeter given the rivalry the two schools have had throughout their histories.
“It was huge,” said Wallace, a junior combo guard. “It's a pretty big rivalry, our freshmen, junior varsity and varsity teams played them and their fans were disrespectful. You could hear them screaming at us during the game. It was a big win for us — a must win — because we were waiting all year for our game against Frost. The fact it was a district win was a bonus. I'm proud of how we came out and played. If we keep practicing hard and keep in our heads that we can't be beaten, we will end the season the season deep in the 2A playoffs.”
Davis II, Lightfoot (10), Johnson (10) and Wallace (10) combined for 43 of Italy's 52 final points. They helped the team finish 24-for-78 (30 percent) from the field and the 3-point line and dominate Frost in each of the four quarters.
That same fearsome foursome also stifled most of the Bears' opportunities by winning the battle of the boards and turnovers, collecting 30 of the Gladiators' 47 rebounds and eight of the team's 15 steals. Kendrick Norwood (4), Wallace (3), Davis (2) and Jeremiah Thompson (2), as well as Lightfoot, led the team in steals.
Lightfoot, who posted the game's sole double-double, had 12 rebounds and three steals.
"It's up to us to always get to shooters, box out and rebound the basketball and just play good hard defense," Lightfoot said. "We try to impose defense before offense because once we start doing good on that side of the ball and force turnovers, then the offensive part comes easier. That's when we can run in transition and I can do the most damage because I'm a fast-moving post and my most dangerous weapons are my rebounding and my ability to score inside."
The Gladiators will take the momentum of the rivalry victory, as well as the team's eight-game streak, into a non-district matchup with Palmer High School (4-7) at 6:15 p.m. Dec. 29 at IHS Gymnasium. They will resume district play on Jan. 6 against TABC No. 11 2A Kerens High School (8-4) at IHS Gymnasium.