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BIG RED BREAKTHROUGH: Junior star Johnson spurs Belton to playoff win; Tigers set to battle Connally


TIGERS READY FOR ROUND 2: Belton head coach Jason Fossett (left), junior guard Trap Johnson and the Tigers pulled out a 57-50 overtime win against Magnolia West in a Class 5A bi-district playoff game Tuesday, earning the program's first postseason victory since 2004. Johnson, who averages 23.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, scored 21 of his career-high 42 points in the fourth quarter and OT. No. 23-ranked Belton (27-8) plays District 23-5A champion Pflugerville Connally (26-9) in the area round at 7 tonight at Burnet High School. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)





By GREG WILLE

gwille2@hot.rr.com


BELTON – With 26 wins and a third consecutive playoff berth under its belt, a Belton boys basketball team described as “surprising” by its coach already had achieved plenty this season when the Tigers took the court against Magnolia West in a Class 5A bi-district playoff game Tuesday night in Giddings.

However, Belton knew that it wouldn’t be satisfied or fulfilled without recording its program’s first playoff victory since 2004.

So when the No. 23-ranked Tigers – who built a 12-point lead in the first half -- found themselves trailing by 10 with only 3½ minutes remaining, high-scoring junior guard Trap Johnson had to ponder the sobering possibility of a third straight first-round defeat.

“It would have been hard. You never want the last game to be something like that, where you know you can win and then you just give it up in the first round of the playoffs,” Johnson, a varsity starter since his freshman season, said after practice Thursday morning at Tiger Gym. “I’ve already had two years now of losing in that first round, so I was there on the court thinking, ‘I really don’t want this to be the last one.’”

So he made sure it wasn’t.

Coach Jason Fossett’s resilient Tigers chipped away at their deficit, then the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Johnson made a 3-point shot from near the left sideline while getting fouled and sank the ensuing free throw for a pressure-packed, game-tying four-point play in the final minute.

Belton’s defense stuffed Magnolia West’s final possession to send the back-and-forth battle into overtime, then the Tigers outscored the Mustangs 13-6 in the extra period to earn a 57-50 victory and notch their program’s first playoff triumph in 19 years.

On a rough shooting night for most of Belton’s team, Johnson made seven 3-pointers overall and scored 21 of his career-high 42 points in the fourth quarter and OT to help his Tigers secure what Fossett called “a breakthrough win.”

“I didn’t think we played well as a team, but Trap played really, really well,” Fossett said Thursday. “It was just one of those deals where nobody else was hitting any shots and Trap just said, ‘We’re not gonna lose.’”

As Belton’s only returning starter from last season’s 29-6 team that was led by his older brother, Tigers all-time leading scorer TJ Johnson, Trap Johnson said his current squad feels a great sense of accomplishment and excitement to finally end the program’s two-decade playoff drought.

“It means a lot,” said Johnson, who averages 23.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and surpassed the career 1,500-point milestone in the first-round win. “We would have loved to do it any of the years, but for it to be this year and just nobody expecting us to be able to do it this year, it was huge. The guys stepped up big-time. It’s really big.”

For Belton (27-8), the District 22-5A runner-up to second-ranked Killeen Ellison, the reward is an area-round showdown with 23-5A champion Pflugerville Connally (26-9) at 7 p.m. Friday at Burnet High School. The winner will advance to a Region III quarterfinal early next week against 21-5A co-champion Bryan Rudder (32-5), which edged Austin LBJ 57-53 on Thursday night in Giddings.

“They’re a good team and they won their district. They’re very athletic and can just play,” Johnson said about Connally’s Cougars, who went 13-1 in district play and clobbered Austin Liberal Arts & Science Academy 74-37 on Tuesday. “Coach told us we have to play our game and mentally lock in and be ready to go.”

Added Fossett about Connally: “They’re very similar to us record-wise. When you look at them on film, they’re very similar to one of the district teams we play, (Killeen) Shoemaker – very quick, very athletic. It’s a very even matchup and it’ll be a toss-up game. Whoever plays well that night will be the one that wins. Nobody’s just going to go in and blow the other one out.”

In his fifth season at the helm and 22nd overall as a high school head coach, Fossett said the long-awaited playoff win was the necessary next step for Belton’s steadily growing program that has compiled a 73-22 record the last three seasons. It also eased some of the lingering pain from the Tigers’ crushing 63-59, double-overtime loss to DeSoto in a 6A bi-district duel a year ago, in which Trap Johnson was plagued by foul trouble and fouled out in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve been in the playoffs three years in a row, and we needed a breakthrough win. The first year that we got in (in 2021), we were just happy to be there and we played Waxahachie, who was ranked No. 1 in the state,” Fossett said. “Last year we were really disappointed. We were playing DeSoto, who’s a perennial power but we thought we were better, and they got us in double overtime.

“Trap didn’t play but probably a third or a half of the game. It was one we felt we should have won and we thought we played well enough to win, but it just didn’t bounce our way. It was important this year to get that playoff win.”

Although Trap Johnson desperately wanted to win a postseason game alongside his brother and two-year varsity teammate, a happy ending against DeSoto did not materialize. But given another shot to help Belton attain the playoff success it’s hungered for, the Tigers’ current go-to guy didn’t let another opportunity slip from his grasp.

“That DeSoto game, I was in foul trouble the whole time and fouled out in the beginning of the fourth. It was so hard for me knowing that it was my last game with TJ and I wasn’t even able to be in the game and help him,” said Trap Johnson, whose older brother now is redshirting as a freshman basketball player at NCAA Division I Lipscomb in Tennessee. “So for me to have the chance the next year without him but still be in the same situation, it felt great.”

Johnson poured in 42 of Belton’s 57 points against Magnolia West, but both he and Fossett said it took a team effort for the Tigers to rally back late and finally prevail. Junior guard Gian Carlo scored 10 points, senior point guard EJ Foutz made four crucial free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime and 6-9 senior center Jayden Ford was scoreless but contributed nine rebounds and six blocked shots.

Senior guard Chris Scott completes Belton’s starting lineup. The Tigers’ reserves include seniors Desmond Adams and Druw Bramlett and juniors Isaac Abel, Shawn McLean and Brett Shadrick.

Fossett proudly pointed out that Bramlett, Foutz and Scott all rank within the top 30 academically in Belton’s senior class of 501 students.

“You’ve got three really, really smart kids, and that helps when they’re out there (on the court) more than people think,” Fossett said. “That’s pretty impressive. There’s probably not many basketball teams that have something like that.”

The 5-8, 145-pound Foutz has become a vital performer in his only season as a starter, aiding the Tigers with gritty, selfless play as a “glue guy.”

“EJ Foutz has done a really good job at the point guard. He handles the ball really well, gets us in our offensive sets and is very smart,” Fossett said. “He’s going to make the right play. He doesn’t shoot it a lot, but he’ll make an opportune 3.”

Trap Johnson praised the sometimes-overlooked contributions of Foutz and Scott.

“EJ takes great care of the ball, makes great passes and takes charges, and Chris takes charges and is in the right spot on defense,” Johnson said. “Those are things you don’t really see much if you’re just looking at the stat line, yet they’re there. They impact the game greatly and the coaches love it.”

After splitting his sophomore season between Belton’s junior varsity and varsity teams, the 6-1, left-handed Carlo has emerged as the Tigers’ second-leading scorer. The skilled, confident combination guard averages approximately 13 points per game and has shooting range that extends far beyond the 3-point arc.

“Gian has stepped up and been really good for us. He can shoot it from anywhere and can get hot in a hurry. He’s not shy to shoot it,” Fossett said. “He’s a basketball junkie.”

Said Johnson: “Gian’s definitely stepped up big-time from last year. For him to come in and be our second-leading scorer, he’s played well and it’s helped. He’s willing to let the ball fly.”

After the 6-6 TJ Johnson and eight other experienced seniors graduated, Belton received a pleasant surprise last year when the towering, slender Ford moved in from Georgia. He’s a defensive force inside (3.5 blocked shots per game) and an offensive threat outside.

“Jayden’s been a big move-in. Skinny as you can get but he really shoots it well. You see a 6-9 guy and you don’t think he’s going to be outside shooting 3s, but he’s had some games where he’s hit four or five,” Fossett said. “(Against Magnolia West) he didn’t score but he had nine rebounds and six blocks, so he affects the game on both ends of the floor.

“On the defensive end obviously it’s rebounding and blocking shots, but on the offensive end he’s more of a perimeter player and he draws their big out from the paint, which opens up the lane for us to do some other things.”

Said Trap Johnson about Ford’s contributions: “He blocks a lot of shots and just tips a bunch of passes. He affects (opponents) and makes them change direction and where they finish. And he gets a lot of rebounds, so having him here is great.”

Belton shared last season’s 12-6A championship with perennial playoff program Harker Heights, which currently is ranked seventh in 6A. That was the Tigers’ first league crown since 2004, when star guards Matt Braeuer and Ramonce Taylor led the charge in the final season for successful head coach Ed Braeuer, who died in 2014.

Despite dropping to 5A in the University Interscholastic League’s latest reclassification and realignment, Belton couldn’t quite match Ellison (33-3) in the battle for the 22-5A championship, losing 66-54 and 57-46. However, the Tigers performed well in both meetings with the Eagles and Oklahoma State-signed guard Jamyron Keller.

“We were competitive. We were proud of the way we played them,” Fossett said. “Of course we want to win every game, but we had no shame in the way we played against Ellison both times. We were one of the more competitive games they’ve had this year. Those gave us confidence.”

Fossett was pleased by how Belton came back from an unexpected 0-2 start in 22-5A, including a 45-41 home setback against Waco University.

“We started district with Ellison and were feeling pretty good about ourselves, then we go lay an egg against University and we’re sitting at 0-2 in district with basically one guy back from last year. You’re thinking, ‘Man, this could go bad in a hurry.’ But the kids have done a really good job of fighting and staying in there,” said Fossett, whose Tigers went 11-1 in their final 12 league games, including wins of 17 and 22 points over district rival Lake Belton.

“No, I didn’t (see any panic from the players). A lot of that stems from Trap. The guys look to Trap. He’s been here three years now on varsity, and he didn’t panic. The coaches didn’t panic. We just kind of steadied the ship and plugged away.”

Although he’s now produced a stellar all-around junior season, Trap Johnson had to overcome more than just the departure of his brother TJ, last year’s 12-6A MVP and perhaps the best player in Belton hoops history.

While playing in his final summer basketball tournament with his AAU travel team late last July, Trap Johnson suffered a fracture in his left (non-shooting) wrist.

“I didn’t get it checked out for about a month. They put me in a cast for a month and then that didn’t do anything, so I had to go into surgery and then I was out for I think six weeks after that,” said Johnson, who missed all of Belton’s fall league schedule and preseason scrimmages and wasn’t medically cleared until the day before the Tigers’ season opener.

“I lost a lot of weight and couldn’t shoot much because I only had one hand. I couldn’t lift (weights) with my left hand. Even when I was playing I had to have it taped and I was worrying about if it gets banged around, so coming back from that was definitely difficult.”

Johnson, who also plays baseball for Belton as TJ did, used the early portion of the season to play his way back into peak shape as his wrist continued to heal.

“It took a while. During the game I wouldn’t worry about it; I’d just worry about playing. But my mobility (in the left wrist) was off. It wasn’t back to normal,” he said. “Honestly it wasn’t until maybe a week before district when I started feeling like I’m actually good (to play at full capability).”

Johnson’s well-balanced offensive arsenal features a smooth, accurate 3-point shot from beyond NBA range, the athleticism and quickness to drive through defenses and the jumping ability to unleash powerful dunks. Add in the confidence and swagger that comes from three seasons of 6A/5A varsity experience and it’s easy to see why the emerging three-star recruit has Division I scholarship offers from Oral Roberts (Okla.) and Bryant (R.I), with Lipscomb and other programs showing interest.

“It’s been another year, just working out over the summer and developing. The roles on the team have changed since TJ left, so I had to fill in his role and obviously play a different part,” said Trap Johnson, who has room and time to add strength and weight to his lanky frame. “It’s definitely different. I loved playing with TJ. It was amazing.”

With close to 800 points this season, Johnson has eclipsed both the 1,000- and 1,500-point marks for his career. TJ Johnson’s Belton record of 2,672 points most likely is out of reach, but Trap figures to achieve his goal of 2,000 career points with a productive, healthy senior season.

Fossett has had an ideal vantage point to see both brothers do what they do best.

“Both are excellent players, obviously. Trap’s a way different player than his brother. TJ was more of a forward; Trap is a guard. TJ would post you up some; Trap’s really not going to post up,” Fossett said. “Trap is way more athletic than people think. He’s above the rim and dunks regularly. When colleges look at him, the first thing they say is, ‘Man, he’s more athletic than we thought he was.’ He’s 6-5 and can get up and he’s a very athletic player.

“He's really just stepped into TJ’s role, is what he’s done. TJ was obviously our leader the last two or three years – scoring, rebounding, leadership, all that stuff. You worried a little bit because we lost nine seniors from last year. I thought Trap would be able to transition into it, but he’s even done it better than I thought he would – leadership, the kids look up to him and he takes care of the ball.”

In addition, Johnson’s foul-laden finale as a sophomore was not a sign of things to come. Fossett said Johnson often plays the full 32 minutes – or 36, as was needed in Tuesday’s overtime win.

“Trap doesn’t come off the floor. I worried about him this year without TJ. Last year he’d get in foul trouble some. Knock on wood, he has not gotten into foul trouble this year. He’s done a good job with that,” said Fossett, who will welcome the third and youngest Johnson brother into the Tigers' program next season when Ty Johnson is a freshman.

As comfortable as Trap Johnson is as the centerpiece of Belton’s offense, he also has a good feel for when and how to share the wealth with his capable comrades.

“What’s helped Trap more than anything is Gian and Jayden and EJ even being able to knock 3-pointers down, and that keeps the other teams more honest when you have (several) shooters out there,” Fossett said. “If they run two or three guys at Trap, he’s unselfish. He averages over three assists a game. He’ll pass it because he trusts those guys to make it. When they shoot it and make a couple, that deters the double- and triple-teams a lot.”

Johnson’s knack for coming through in crunch time was on full display in the final minute of regulation against Magnolia West. With Belton down by four, he drilled a deep 3 from the left wing, absorbed the contact and hit the tying free throw. Johnson then made a right-wing 3 on the first possession of overtime en route to the Tigers’ win.

“When Trap made a 3 and got fouled and that tied the game up, that was huge. It changed everything,” said Fossett, whose son, Quinton, guided North Zulch to a playoff berth this season in his head coaching debut. “We were pressing them a little bit in the halfcourt, and when he hit that shot we subbed Jayden back in and went back to our normal defense. It changed the whole complexion of the game.”

Added Johnson about Belton’s first-round playoff performance: “It was not good. We were giving up too many easy buckets. They were getting whatever they wanted, and our shots weren’t falling. But we just had to fight through that one.”

During Fossett’s highly successful seven-season run as Killeen’s coach from 2005-12, his Kangaroos were knocked out of the playoffs three times by powerhouse Dallas South Oak Cliff. Although the 5A Region III playoff bracket includes Ellison and No. 3 Fort Bend Marshall, he believes it offers a greater opportunity for Belton to make a deep run than the Tigers previously encountered in loaded 6A Region II.

“Well, it gives you hope, no doubt. If we were back in 6A Region II again, we’re playing DeSoto or one of the Mansfield schools,” Fossett said. “(Competing in 5A Region III) gives you hope not just to try to win the first one but to win maybe two or three games and open it up a little bit.”

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