IT'S PLAYOFF TIME: Belton junior forward TJ Johnson (44), shown guarding Temple's Aundra Jackson during the Tigers' 53-31 road win Dec. 22, and the Tigers (17-7) will battle top-ranked Waxahachie (16-2) in a Class 6A bi-district playoff game at 7 tonight at Lorena High School. The 6-foot-6 Johnson averages 25.2 points per game for Belton, which has advanced to postseason play for the first time in its three seasons with head coach Jason Fossett. Belton faces a Waxahachie squad that has two NCAA Division I signees and handed No. 2 Duncanville and No. 3 Richardson their only defeats. (File photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – The Belton boys basketball team is the No. 4 seed from District 12-6A, and the Tigers are making their first playoff appearance since the 2017-18 season.
Waxahachie is ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 6A, dealt No. 2 Duncanville and No. 3 Richardson their only losses this season and has two seniors – Oklahoma signee CJ Noland and Colorado State signee Jalen Lake – committed to play for NCAA Division I programs.
Therefore, it's not a stretch to say that few, if any, interested observers give Belton (17-7) much of a shot to win its bi-district playoff game against Waxahachie (16-2) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Lorena High School.
For Belton third-year head coach Jason Fossett, however, the only thing that matters is that his Tigers enter tonight's postseason opener possessing a strong belief that they can prevail by playing their best basketball against the heavily favored Runnin' Indians.
“First you have to show up believing you have a shot. A lot of times these games are won or lost before the game is even tipped off. Your guys have to believe you have the opportunity to compete. Then it is important you withstand the first 4 minutes of the game,” Fossett said Monday. “We can't be intimidated by (Waxahachie's) size and speed. We have to make smart decisions with the ball and not give them easy baskets off our turnovers.
“We obviously are going to have to shoot the ball well to have a shot, especially from the 3-point line. (The goal is to) have the game close going into the fourth quarter and give yourself a chance. That is about all you can ask.”
Senior guard Kayden Downs, a varsity player since his freshman season, is the only Belton player who has competed in a playoff game. The 2017-18 Tigers, coached by Trovocie Jackson, lost 61-47 to DeSoto in a 6A bi-district game.
This Belton squad does have a good amount of overall experience, though, with standout junior forward and three-year starter TJ Johnson and senior guards Downs, Ben Jones and Luke Bramlett. Freshman guard Trap Johnson, younger brother of TJ Johnson, completes the starting lineup.
The clash with Waxahachie will be the Tigers' first game since their 80-62 win at Killeen Shoemaker on Feb. 9 that clinched Belton's first playoff berth in Fossett's three seasons at the helm. The Tigers' regular-season finale against 12-6A runner-up Harker Heights first was rescheduled because of the winter storm and then ultimately was canceled, leaving Belton's final district record at 8-5.
Although Belton went 5-5 in its final 10 district games after briefly holding the outright lead at 3-0, Fossett has been impressed by the Tigers' consistent approach and even-keel quality.
“I think the thing I have liked the most is our consistency. Besides maybe one or two games against Temple this season our play has been pretty consistent,” he said. “We have not gotten too high or low when things are going really well or really poorly. The kids have bought into that you have to show up every game and play, because at any point in time you could get beat, especially in 12-6A.”
The only district opponent Belton went 0-2 against was ninth-ranked Killeen Ellison (25-1), whose Eagles repeated as the outright 12-6A champions.
The Tigers face a daunting challenge against Waxahachie's athletic, battle-tested group. The Runnin' Indians went 27-7 last season, beating Richardson Pearce and Coppell in the 6A playoffs before being eliminated 79-58 by Richardson in a Region I quarterfinal.
Waxahachie has been even better this season. Noland, rated as a four-star recruit, scored 30 points and fellow senior Montez Young made the game-winning 3-point shot to give the Indians an 88-85 overtime victory Jan. 9 at Duncanville, which remains the Panthers' lone defeat. Because the teams' second matchup was canceled after being postponed by inclement weather, Waxahachie captured the 11-6A championship with a 9-0 record.
The Indians, who average more than 78 points per game, also have wins over 5A No. 1 Lancaster and 5A No. 6 Amarillo. Their only losses came early in the season against iSchool of Lewisville and 6A No. 8 McKinney. Waxahachie's last game was on Feb. 12, an 80-51 home win in which Noland, Lake and Young scored a combined 41 points.
“I mean, Waxahachie has been No. 1 in the state for the majority of the year. They have CJ Noland, a Power 5 signee at Oklahoma, and Jalen Lake going to Colorado State,” Fossett said. “I told the guys we have not seen a guy like CJ Noland this year. He is probably 6-4, 220 pounds and so strong and skilled with the basketball, but what makes them so dangerous is they have a number of other guys that will probably play beyond high school.
“When you pair two high-caliber college players with some other athletic and long kids that can play the game, you have a recipe to have a lot of success. They force people into making poor decisions and turn those poor decisions into easy scoring opportunities on the other end. They are so explosive and dangerous on both ends of the floor that they can rattle off a 10-0 run very quickly with all the skill they can put on the floor.”
Belton can't come close to matching Waxahachie in terms of big-name recruits, but Downs, Jones (committed to play baseball at East Texas Baptist) and Trap Johnson are skilled 3-point shooters and each has demonstrated the ability to score 20-plus points in a game.
Of course, the main straw that has stirred the Tigers' drink throughout their breakthrough season is the versatile TJ Johnson. The 6-6, 195-pound forward averages 25.2 points per game and has scored 30-plus six times, including a high of 43 at Bastrop Cedar Creek on Dec. 5 and 34 points in the playoff-clinching win at Shoemaker. He's a potent, willing 3-point shooter who also uses his size and athletic ability to impact games as a rebounder and defender.
“TJ is one of those players who makes everyone around him better. The amazing thing is most everyone we played knew TJ was our main threat and he still managed to perform at such a high and efficient level,” Fossett said. “He is not one of those guys who is a volume shooter. He is so efficient in the shots that he takes. Rarely does he take what you would say is a forced or ill-advised shot.
“He trusted his teammates to make the shots when he was double-teamed, and the majority of the time those other guys knocked them down, especially in the key moments. TJ's such a high-IQ guy that you can trust out there with the ball in his hands to make the right play. He puts so much time and effort into it, so I'm glad to see him have the year he is having.”
The Belton-Waxahachie winner will advance to the area round to battle Rockwall (17-9), which grabbed a 55-40 bi-district victory over Wylie on Saturday.
Regardless of whether Belton pulls off a stunning upset against Waxahachie tonight or sees its stellar season come to a conclusion, Fossett has thoroughly enjoyed coaching the Tigers and watching them develop into a playoff-qualifying team.
“This has been such a fun group of guys to coach and to be a part of this year. This is my 20th year as a head coach and this bunch has been one of my favorite groups just because of their competitive spirit and willingness to find a way to win,” said Fossett, who coached Killeen to a 193-51 record and six district championships from 2005-12. “We are not the biggest or fastest guys you have ever seen, but they are such high-IQ basketball players that just want to win."