ITALY — Italy notched its first signature victory of the 2016-17 season, thanks to a monster performance from Aarion Copeland.
The senior forward scored a game-high 19 points — 11 in the third quarter — during the 60-26 win against Frost High School on Tuesday night at IHS Gymnasium.
Copeland's surge also helped the (10-4, 1-1) Lady Gladiators' earn their first district victory against a team the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches projected finishing third in District 19-2A standings. Italy didn't make the organization's top four.
"It matters more to them than us, but I feel confident that we are going to get back and get ranked," Copeland said. "[The LaPoynor loss] was just a bad game that taught us a lot. We will be back on track because we're focused on playing the best we can, whether it's Decorea, Emmy, Vanessa or anyone on our team."
She and her team may be "back on track" sooner rather than later if the Lady Gladiators can replicate the Tuesday's two-sided dominance.
Copeland scored on 15 shot attempts from the field, hit three of her five free throws and finished the night 9-for-15 (60 percent) from the floor. The Lady Gladiators finished the game 14-for-32 (44 percent) from the field and hit nine of their 34 3-point attempts. They also handed out assists on 10 of their 23 field goals.
Copeland, as well as Emmy Cunningham (16 pts) and Decorea Green (10 pts) went off after a frustrating first half, in which the Lady Gladiators were held to only 21 points while limiting Frost 10 total points.
The (7-6, 0-3) Lady Polar Bears managed to whittle down the deficit in the opening minutes of the third quarter when Italy's "Big 3" took over. Behind a 21-point surge sparked by a pair of Cunningham 3-pointers, she, Copeland and Green helped Italy score more points in one quarter than the team did during the first 16 minutes of the game.
"The win against Frost was huge, especially since we struggled against them last season and coming off the loss to LaPoynor," said Laquita Walker, the IHS head girls' basketball coach. "That's a really good team that's one of the best in the state. We learned during that game that we're not playing the name on the jersey, we're playing the girls that are wearing the jerseys."
The Italy defense was on point, too.
With Green (6 stls) and Copeland (2 stls) leading the steals charge and T'Keyah Pace (3) and Vanessa Cantu (2) following suit, the Lady Gladiators forced 20 turnovers. Taylor Boyd, Brycelen Richards and Chardanae Talton each added a steal and Oleisha Anderson (4), Cunningham (3) and Copeland (1) led the team in blocks.
Frost scored just 26 points — 16 in the first two quarters — on 22 percent shooting from the field and 11 percent from behind the 3-point line. The Lady Polar Bears leading scorer, Sydney Woods, hit only six of her 27 2-point attempts and only two of 17 from three.
Her 13-point outing, as well as Kennah Kennedy's 11 points, accounted for all but two of Frost's final total. Kennedy scored seven points in the fourth quarter on 7-for-12 free throw shooting.
"My steals were a little low and had an off game," Pace joked. "We had a rough couple of quarters but made up with them with defense and a good second half. Anytime you force a team to turn the ball over 20 times you're going to have a better chance to win. It's something that's always a work in progress. We're not even close to our ceiling."
Most importantly, the Lady Gladiators walked away with a confidence-building win. They also sit two-way tie with Cross Roads High School for fourth place in the district and a single LaPoynor loss away from first heading into the three-day Dec. 27 Thorndale Tournament.
“I honestly don't know where our defense ranks among others in the district and state, but in our eyes, it's got the potential to have state championship quality,” she continued. "If we can continue to make teams' turn the ball over and we score [in transition], that will help us win ball games. That will help define how good we are on defense and how far we can go this season."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.