NOT THE TIGERS' NIGHT: Belton shooters go cold, Walker hits seven 3s as No. 9 Ellison prevails 70-51
RISE AND FIRE: Belton junior forward TJ Johnson (44) takes a jump shot over Killeen Ellison defender Kesean Garland as teammates Trap Johnson (23), Luke Bramlett (4) and Ruben Jimenez look on during the Tigers' 70-51 loss to the ninth-ranked Eagles in Friday night's District 12-6A game at Tiger Gym. Trap Johnson, a freshman, scored 18 points and his brother TJ Johnson had 15, but Belton (12-3, 3-1) posted its lowest point total this season and suffered its first home defeat. Javon Walker made seven 3-point shots and scored 25 points for defending 12-6A champion Ellison (16-1), which moved to 3-1 in league play. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – The Belton Tigers entered Friday night in a position that was both rare and ideal: alone at the top of the District 12-6A boys basketball standings at 3-0. But by the time the evening ended, they found themselves in a five-way logjam for the league lead.
For Belton, there were several culprits in its 70-51 loss to ninth-ranked and defending district champion Killeen Ellison at Tiger Gym.
A huge problem was the lethal outside marksmanship of Javon Walker, Ellison's slender senior shooting guard who torched the Tigers' defense and the nets for seven 3-point baskets – five in the second quarter alone – on his way to a game-high 25 points, 18 before halftime.
Another big factor was a season-low point total for Belton. High-scoring junior forward TJ Johnson didn't make a 3-point shot and was limited to 15 points, well below his previous average of 27.9. Freshman guard Trap Johnson, TJ Johnson's brother, made four 3-pointers and scored a team-high 18 points, but senior guards Kayden Downs and Ben Jones produced only six and one points, respectively.
By comparison, those four players scored a combined 77 points in Belton's 82-67 win at Copperas Cove on Tuesday. Considering that head coach Jason Fossett's Tigers (12-3, 3-1) committed 20 turnovers – many of them against the Eagles' pressure defense – and made only three free throws, it clearly wasn't their night against perennial power Ellison (16-1, 3-1), which last season won 34 games and reached the Class 6A Region II final.
“We were definitely off, for sure – probably the worst game we've played all year,” TJ Johnson said after Belton's first home loss this season. “They did have tough man-to-man defense, but I don't think that was the main problem. I think the main problem was that we couldn't seem to get anything to go in the hoop. If we can have two or three guys hitting shots, we're going to win games. But whenever all five can't get it in, it's going to tough to win.”
Trendon Stewart scored 14 points, Dante Tutein had 10 and Jamyron Keller added nine as the Eagles of veteran head coach Alberto Jones Jr. bounced back in a big way after a 41-35 loss at Harker Heights on Tuesday that snapped their 35-game regular-season winning streak and their run of 23 consecutive district victories.
“We didn't shoot it good period for the whole night, but I give a lot of credit to Ellison for that. They are really, really good defensively and Coach Jones does a great job on the defensive end over there,” said Fossett, whose Tigers now share the 12-6A lead with Ellison, Harker Heights, Killeen Shoemaker and Bryan at 3-1 and will host Bryan next Tuesday and Shoemaker next Friday. “But I was more disappointed with what we did defensively.”
To be more specific, Fossett said Belton's strategy on defense was to limit the 3-point shooting opportunities of dynamic 6-1 sophomore point guard Keller and Walker, the long-distance gunner.
Keller made only 3-pointer and Belton held him far below his normal scoring output, though the muscular two-year starter boost Ellison's cause in many other ways. But it was Walker's quick-trigger release and potent accuracy that repeatedly made the Tigers pay.
After making one 3-pointer in the first quarter, Walker exploded for five 3s in his second-period barrage – punctuated by one with 3 seconds remaining – to give Ellison a commanding 39-24 lead. Belton never got closer than 12 points during the second half.
“We had talked about the couple of guys that we had to focus in on, and we go in at half and (Walker's) hit six 3-pointers. I mean, mentally that wasn't very good,” said Fossett, who sounded both annoyed and amused when he mentioned that Ellison nailed eight 3-pointers against his Tigers after the Eagles made zero 3s in their loss at Harker Heights. “(Walker's) an excellent shooter, a great shooter. It's a quick release. They're all good players over there. But with them, you've got to pick your poison, and those were the two guys we kind of picked, and we didn't do a very good job on either one of them.
“It was a group effort. We talked about it as a team: 'Hey, let's guard these two guys and try to make some of those other guys beat us.' But we didn't do a very good job.”
TJ Johnson and Trap Johnson scored a combined 10 points in the second quarter, but that wasn't nearly enough to keep pace with Walker's 15-point outburst in the period as Ellison built a comfortable 15-point halftime lead.
“It was really frustrating,” TJ Johnson said. “We knew before the game that he and Keller were the two guys we needed to focus on. We did a good job on (Keller), but (Walker) . . . I felt like our defense wasn't terrible on him. I mean, we had a hand in his face. He was just hitting shots.”
In Belton's previous home game, TJ Johnson made five of the Tigers' 17 3-pointers and scored 28 points – right on his season average – in a 78-58 romp over Killeen on Dec. 29. The 6-foot-6 third-year starter poured in 26 points in the Tigers' 15-point victory at Cove, where Jones and Trap Johnson produced 20 points each.
However, TJ Johnson and most of his fellow Belton shooters struggled to consistently find their stroke against the length and athleticism of Ellison's deep squad. Trap Johnson made four of the Tigers' eight 3-pointers, but Downs was scoreless until he made two 3s in the final 2:16, long after the Eagles had sealed the outcome.
“You're not going to shoot good every night. We were due to have a rough shooting night, and we did tonight,” Fossett said. “But again, Ellison had a lot to do with it. They put more pressure and are up in you more. We've got to put it behind us and not let it beat us twice. We've got a big week next week with Bryan and Shoemaker, both at home.”
Added TJ Johnson: “We're looking to win them both, obviously. Those are two games that I feel like we should win. They're really big games if we want to make the playoffs.”
Trap Johnson scored inside off a pass from Jones 31 seconds into the game. What Belton didn't know at that point was that it would be its last advantage of the night. Keller made a 15-foot jumper and grabbed an offensive rebound and scored a putback basket before Jayce Wright's fast-break layup off Keller's pass for a 6-2 Ellison lead. The first of Walker's seven 3-pointers helped the Eagles surge to a 17-6 advantage before a 3 by senior Ruben Jimenez cut Belton's deficit to 17-10 after the first quarter.
After Stewart's banked-in shot off a lob pass, Walker's outside shooting began to decimate the Tigers' defense. He made two 3s from the right corner in a span of 1:12, though a pair of Trap Johnson 3-pointers from the right side and TJ Johnson's back-to-back inside buckets kept Belton within striking distance at 30-20 with 3:36 remaining before halftime.
However, Walker seemingly released the ball as soon as he caught it as he drilled 3-pointers from the right corner, the right wing and – following a 3 by Belton senior guard Luke Bramlett – finally the left wing 3 seconds before the buzzer to flummox the Tigers' defense and propel Ellison to a 39-24 halftime lead.
“We did a lot better job on defense in the second half, but in the first half he got us,” TJ Johnson said of Walker's long-range prowess.
The Johnson brothers attempted to keep the Tigers afloat in the third quarter, with Trap making a left-wing 3 and getting the roll on a 10-foot jumper and TJ driving for a basket and scoring off a pass from junior Seth Morgan. But even while holding Walker without a 3-pointer in the third (he did score two 2-point buckets), Belton couldn't cut into Ellison's lead, which thanks to Stewart's eight-point period grew to 56-38 entering the fourth.
Trap Johnson scored a tough bucket inside to begin the final quarter, but Walker responded with his seventh 3 – he made eight 3s in a game earlier this season – and the Eagles led by as many as 22 in the fourth.
Trap Johnson provided a bright spot on an otherwise rough night for the Tigers, scoring a team-high 18 points even as the 6-2 freshman endured some ball-handling hardships against Ellison's intense pressure defense.
“No fear. He's not a freshman anymore,” Fossett said. “The experience he's getting playing against Ellison is invaluable."
Added TJ Johnson about his brother's mixed-bag performance: “I remember when I was a freshman (starting on varsity), games like this were really tough. You've never seen speed like that before. I think this was his first real experience with the quickness and athleticism of those guys, so I think he'll be better prepared next time. I thought he did good. It's a big difference between middle school basketball and coming to play No. 9 Ellison.”
DISTRICT 12-6A BOYS BASKETBALL
No. 9 KILLEEN ELLISON 70,
Ellison 17 22 17 14 – 70
Belton 10 14 14 13 – 51
Ellison (16-1, 3-1) – Javon Walker 25, Trendon Stewart 14, Dante Tutein 10, Jamyron Keller 9, Kesean Garland 7, Jayce Wright 5.
Belton (12-3, 3-1) – Trap Johnson 18, TJ Johnson 15, Kayden Downs 6, Luke Bramlett 5, Ruben Jimenez 3, Seth Morgan 3, Ben Jones 1.
3-point field goals – Ellison: 8 (Walker 7, Keller 1); Belton: 8 (Tr. Johnson 4, Downs 2, Bramlett 1, Jimenez 1).
Free throws – Ellison 6-10; Belton 3-8.
Junior varsity – Ellison 71, Belton 50.
Freshman – Ellison 80, Belton Red 53; Ellison 41, Belton White 15.