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  • Greg Wille

RIVALRY REVENGE: Stewart, Hall help struggling Temple charge back to beat cold-shooting Belton 53-43

SENIOR MOMENT: Temple senior guard/forward Joseph Stewart scored 13 points against rival Belton on Tuesday night as the visiting Wildcats rallied from a 21-10 deficit early in the second quarter to defeat the Tigers 53-43 in a District 12-6A game at Tiger Gym. Stewart, who made two of Temple's six 3-point baskets, did not play in the Wildcats' 53-31 home loss to the Tigers on Dec. 22 because of COVID-19 contact tracing involving his father. Sophomore guard Jaylon Hall led Temple with 14 points in the rematch with Belton. (Photo by Greg Wille,


BELTON – The Belton Tigers entered Tuesday night as prime contenders for the District 12-6A championship, and they were playing at home against a seventh-place Temple team they dominated 53-31 on Dec. 22 at Wildcat Gym.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats came into Tiger Gym with only one district win to their credit and weren't even particularly close to 12-6A's fourth and final playoff position.

However, there is a reason that competitive basketball games are played on a hardwood court instead of on paper. Anything can happen on any given evening, especially when a rivalry is involved.

Belton led 21-10 early in the second quarter, but the cold-shooting Tigers made only eight field goals in a frustrating final 22 minutes and Temple's Joseph Stewart and Jaylon Hall came up with key plays in crunch time to help the resilient Wildcats control the second half and handle the pressure to earn a stunning 53-43 victory.

It was a sweet and much-needed win for third-year head coach Michael Thomas and Temple (8-12 overall, 2-7 in 12-6A), whose only other district victory was 51-45 at home over last-place Killeen on Jan. 15.

Hall scored 14 points and Stewart had 13 for the Wildcats, who made six 3-point baskets to Belton's two and shot 9-for-11 on free throws in the fourth quarter after not attempting a foul shot through three periods. Temple trailed throughout the first half and took its first lead at 29-27 on Stewart's 3-pointer with 2:25 remaining in the third quarter, putting the Wildcats ahead to stay.

“I've been showing the guys a lot of film and just trying to get them to understand that you've got to play basketball. Quit worrying about the crowd saying, 'Shoot it! Jack it up!' You've got to play for the team and play disciplined basketball,” Thomas said. “We did a good job tonight, man. Belton has a good team and I'm proud of the guys. They fought. It's my birthday, so they played well for my birthday.”

The number of candles on Thomas' birthday cake – 39 – was nine more than the number of points his squad allowed in the final three quarters against Belton (15-5, 6-3). The Tigers got 19 points from standout junior forward TJ Johnson – who entered averaging 25.8 per game – but no more than eight from anyone else in their lowest-scoring game this season by eight points.

It's common for Johnson, his freshman brother Trap Johnson and senior guards Kayden Downs and Ben Jones to make a combined eight to 12 – or more – 3-point shots in a game for Belton's let-it-fly attack, but against Temple they had an uncharacteristically rough performance from long distance. In more than 20 total shots from behind the arc, Jones made two and the Johnson brothers and Downs came up empty.

The Wildcats limited Downs, Trap Johnson and Jones to a combined seven made field goals and 22 points. The Tigers also were hindered by 9-for-17 accuracy on free throws and committed seven turnovers during the fourth quarter while striving to catch up to the increasingly confident Wildcats.

“We didn't shoot the ball worth a . . . it was pretty obvious. Senseless turnovers at times, but for the most part we just didn't shoot the ball well at all,” Belton third-year head coach Jason Fossett said. “I thought we got on a little run there early in the second quarter and we got ahead 21-10, and then you can't shoot it much worse than we did after that point.

“Midway through the third quarter I thought we were still OK, but then you start missing, the game starts turning and you're taking shots you usually make and they don't go in. You start pressing a little bit. We just didn't play well, bottom line.”

MAN-TO-MAN: Temple junior forward Leon Hudson (left) defends Belton junior forward TJ Johnson as Trap Johnson (23) and Joseph Stewart look on during the Wildcats' 53-43 victory over the Tigers on Tuesday night at Tiger Gym. The 6-foot-6 TJ Johnson came in averaging 25.8 points but was limited to 19 by Temple, which allowed only two 3-point baskets by the Tigers. Aided by the 6-5 Hudson's defense and rebounding, the Wildcats permitted just 22 points in the final 22 minutes as Temple (8-12) improved to 2-7 in District 12-6A. TJ Johnson blocked four shots for Belton (15-5, 6-3 in district). (Photo by Greg Wille,

A free throw by TJ Johnson gave the Tigers their final lead at 27-26 with 3:58 left in the third. Temple then closed the period with a momentum-shifting 10-2 run and outscored Belton 27-16 in the final 11-plus minutes to grab a win that has the potential to spark a late-season surge for the Wildcats.

“I think honestly we've just been having more fun with each other, so we've been coming together. In practice, we've been enjoying the grind with each other,” said Stewart, a 6-foot-1 senior guard/forward who made two 3-pointers overall and scored five of his 13 points in the fourth quarter. “It's not like we're coming to practice and dreading it. Instead, we're coming to practice and we're happy to be with each other, so getting better is not hard anymore.”

Stewart did not play in Temple's 22-point home loss to Belton five weeks ago because of COVID-19 contact tracing involving his father. After watching that disappointing defeat from home on his computer, Stewart played a pivotal role – with his now-recovered dad present to see it – as the Wildcats got their revenge against the Tigers.

“Belton's always motivation, because it's Belton,” Stewart said.

Said Thomas about Stewart: “That's a quality kid, a straight-A student. He's going to (the University of Texas) for finance, I believe. He's a thinker. He helps us on the floor.”

Temple sophomore guard Jaydon Hall made two 3-pointers and scored all eight of his points in the second half, and 6-5 junior forward Leon Hudson provided rugged defense and rebounding on the interior along with scoring six points.

“No doubt, give Temple a lot of credit. They did a good job and came in here and did what they needed to do to get a win,” Fossett said. “Hat's off to Coach Thomas. He had his kids ready to play. We've got to do a better job the next time.”

The 6-6 TJ Johnson was Belton's dominant player in the first quarter, producing 10 points on five close-range field goals. Temple trailed 9-4 early but stayed in it as Stewart and Jaylon Hall each scored five points in the opening period. Jaylon Hall's 3 from the right side made it 11-10 before TJ Johnson grabbed junior Seth Morgan's inbound pass and powered in for a basket and a 13-10 Tigers advantage.

Belton then produced a scoring flurry in the second quarter's first 2 minutes. Downs penetrated and made a difficult jump shot in the lane; Jones sank a 3-pointer from the left wing while drawing a foul and then completed the rare 4-point play; and Trap Johnson hit two free throws for a 21-10 Tigers lead at the 6:10 mark.

But as Fossett pointed out afterward, Belton's offensive highlights after that juncture were few and far between. The Tigers' only other field goal in the remainder of the first half was TJ Johnson's putback with 18.2 seconds left.

Meanwhile, it was Jaylon Hall's banked-in 3 from the right wing that sparked Temple's big comeback. Hudson made a fast-break floater, junior Lawrence Auston hit a tough banker on the break and 6-5 junior Quinton Anderson scored inside off a deft pass from senior Aundra Jackson to slice Belton's lead to 22-19 2:53 before halftime. In the closing seconds, Jaylon Hall dished to Anderson underneath for a buzzer-beating bucket and a 24-21 game at intermission.

Trap Johnson opened the third with a hard-driving layup from the left wing to push Belton's lead to 26-21, but unfortunately for the Tigers it was not a sign of things to come. Jaydon Hall answered with a right-side 3-pointer, then Hudson scored inside for a 26-26 deadlock at the 5:28 mark and blocked TJ Johnson's attempted layup out of bounds, a defensive highlight that seemed to energize the Wildcats.

“Leon Hudson did a good job tonight,” Thomas said.

A free throw by TJ Johnson – who was an uncharacteristic 3-for-7 from the foul line – gave Belton a 27-26 edge with 3:58 remaining in the third, but Temple took control of the game from that point on. Stewart's right-corner 3 with 2:25 left propelled the Wildcats into the lead for good at 29-27, igniting a game-ending 27-16 run.

Jackson converted his steal into a layup, Hudson made a driving bucket off the glass and Jaydon Hall buried a right-wing 3 to complete a 10-0 spurt before Downs' left-handed runner with 4.5 seconds left finally ended the Tigers' 6½-minute field goal drought. Temple outscored Belton 15-5 in the third quarter to seize a 36-29 lead.

Although the Tigers' misfires from 3-point territory continued to mount, TJ Johnson kept Belton within striking distance with a driving lefty hoop across the lane and a one-handed dunk off his steal to go along with the junior's stellar rebounding and four blocked shots.

However, Temple couldn't be denied. Jaylon Hall scored from the baseline and Auston collected a loose ball and put in another bucket for a 44-35 lead with 3:20 left. Belton used a tough-angle, left-corner 3-pointer by Jones – its first 3 since Jones made one early in the second quarter – and a TJ Johnson free throw to get within 44-39 with 2:05 left, but the Tigers' fouls piled up and Jaylon Hall and Stewart each went 2-for-2 on free throws for a seven-point lead at the 1:20 mark.

After a driving basket by Belton senior guard Luke Bramlett made it 48-43 with 1:16 left, Jaylon Hall shook off missing the front end of a 1-and-1 situation by making two free throws with 44.6 seconds remaining, followed by two Jackson foul shots that sealed the outcome after Downs fouled out with 28.1 left.

Temple, now four games behind third-place squads Belton and Bryan with five district games remaining, will shoot for a two-game winning streak when it hosts Bryan at 7 p.m. Friday. The Wildcats lost 76-55 to the host Vikings on Jan. 5.

“It's a good win for us and hopefully it gives us a little momentum,” Thomas said. “Like I told the kids, to have a chance (to make the playoffs) you've got to win out basically. We're going to keep fighting.”

Now two games behind district-leading, No. 13-ranked Killeen Ellison (21-1, 8-1) and a game behind second-place Harker Heights (7-2 in 12-6A), Belton will seek to bounce back when it hosts fifth-place Copperas Cove at 7 p.m. Friday. The Tigers grabbed an 82-67 road win over the Bulldawgs on Jan. 5.

“You've got to protect your home court, and we didn't do a very good job of that tonight,” Fossett said. “We better come out with some different energy level Friday against Cove or this thing can spiral in a hurry."



Temple 53, Belton 43

Temple 10 11 15 17 – 53

Belton 13 11 5 14 – 43

Temple (8-12, 2-7) – Jaylon Hall 14, Joseph Stewart 13, Jaydon Hall 8, Leon Hudson 6, Quinton Anderson 4, Lawrence Auston 4, Aundra Jackson 4.

Belton (15-5, 6-3) – TJ Johnson 19, Kayden Downs 8, Trap Johnson 7, Ben Jones 7, Luke Bramlett 2.

3-point field goals – Temple 6 (Jaydon Hall 2, Jaylon Hall 2, Stewart 2); Belton 2 (Jones 2).

Free throws – Temple 9-11; Belton 9-17.

Junior varsity – Belton 62, Temple 44.

Freshman A: Belton Red 54, Temple Blue 48.

Freshman B: Temple White 45, Belton White 32.

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