STATEMENT MADE: Aiming to shed 'soft' reputation, Belton gets 27 from Johnson and beats Temple 53-31
BATTLE FOR POSITION: Temple senior guard Aundra Jackson (right) drives against Belton junior forward TJ Johnson during the visiting Tigers' 53-31 win over the Wildcats in Tuesday afternoon's District 12-6A game at Wildcat Gym. Johnson scored 18 of his game-high 27 points in the first half as Belton (10-1) won its district opener and earned its first victory at Temple since Jan. 4, 2011. Jackson scored a team-best 16 points for the Wildcats (4-7, 0-2), but only one of his teammates had more than four. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
To hear Belton junior forward TJ Johnson tell it, he and the Tigers had much to prove – and a reputation to disprove – in their District 12-6A boys basketball opener at rival Temple on Tuesday afternoon at Wildcat Gym.
“We're usually considered one of the softest teams in the district, so we've been working a lot on trying to get rid of that stereotype,” said the 6-foot-6, 195-pound Johnson, Belton's third-year varsity starter who averages 27.7 points per game. “In practice, Coach (Jason Fossett) will send the JV players to hack us and try to get in our heads. So we've been working a lot on talking more on court and getting more physical and not letting people push us around.”
The strategy worked.
For example, examine a few moments from the first half. With Temple leading 11-9 late in the first quarter, Johnson scored a tough basket inside. A minute later he tipped in his own miss for a 15-11 Belton lead, then blocked a 3-point shot in the left corner as time expired and had something to say to the Wildcats before the fired-up Tigers went to their bench.
A few minutes later, Johnson made his second 3-pointer of the second quarter and confidently pumped his right fist as he ran back down the court. And to start the fourth, he drove from the wing and threw down a two-handed dunk, then flew into the right corner and rejected another Temple 3-pointer.
Johnson scored 18 of his 27 points in the first half, senior guard Kayden Downs contributed 16 points and Belton took advantage of Temple's cold shooting and numerous turnovers as the Tigers rolled to a statement-making 53-31 win over the Wildcats.
“We're considered the softest team in district and we don't want that anymore, so we're definitely getting more energized and more physical,” said Johnson, who scored 27-plus points for the fifth time this season as the Tigers of third-year head coach Fossett improved to 10-1 despite recording a season low in points.
It was a difficult afternoon for Temple (4-7, 0-2), which lost 65-59 at home to Copperas Cove in its 12-6A opener last Friday. Senior guard Aundra Jackson scored a team-leading 16 points for the Wildcats against Belton, but six came on two 3-pointers in the final 3 minutes.
Sophomore guard Jaylon Hall scored eight points but no other player had more than four for Temple, which made one 3 in the first 29 minutes and was 2-of-7 on free throws.
“I thought we limited them in the paint. We made them try to hit some from the outside, and we wanted to limit them to one shot and rebound the ball. I thought we did a really good job of that after the first quarter,” Fossett said after Belton's first win at Temple since a 50-47 decision on Jan. 4, 2011.
“And we didn't turn the ball over. I can remember one (turnover) in the backcourt where they got an easy layup. If you can limit the other team getting layups, you'll stay in a lot of games, and I think today we did a good job of that. We made them earn every point they scored except a couple.”
Temple third-year head coach Michael Thomas attributed the lopsided outcome to a combination of Belton's sharp play and the Wildcats' lack of execution.
“It's definitely both. They played well and, you know, the better team won today. We've got to get back to the drawing board,” Thomas said. “We get five days off, which is kind of a good thing to get away a little bit and regroup (and have) everybody look at themselves in the mirror and try to figure out what they need to do.”
Thomas said senior starter Joseph Stewart missed his second straight game because of COVID-19 protocols, and Temple juniors Nyles Moreland, O'Tarian Peoples and Eric Shorter and sophomore Taurean York made their basketball season debuts after the Wildcats' district champion football squad was eliminated from the Class 6A Division II playoffs last Friday.
“You probably won't see our team at full strength until the second half of district,” Thomas said. “But that's no excuse. (Belton) played well and we just didn't do a good job. It's on me. I didn't do a good job of preparing those guys well enough, so that always falls back on me.”
MAD SCRAMBLE: Temple senior guard Aundra Jackson tries to grab the ball as Belton senior guard Kayden Downs dives for it during the visiting Tigers' 53-31 victory over the Wildcats in District 12-6A action Tuesday afternoon at Wildcat Gym. Jackson and Downs each made two 3-point baskets and scored 16 points. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Although Johnson and Downs produced big games, Temple's most glaring problem wasn't its defense. The Wildcats allowed only 10 points to the other seven Tigers, including four who joined the team recently after football season ended: senior Ruben Jimenez and juniors Bryan “Itty” Henry, Seth Morgan and Trent West.
The Wildcats limited senior Ben Jones and freshman Trap Johnson to two points each, far below the season averages for those two guards who are among Belton's best perimeter shooters.
“It was physical, especially being face-guarded,” TJ Johnson, whose only NCAA Division I offer is from Army, said of Temple's defense. “Compared to other teams in the district they're probably not as aggressive, but they definitely did have some pretty good defense. That wasn't a super-high-scoring game for us. Their defense was pretty good, but we also missed some shots we should make.”
The biggest culprit for Temple was a sputtering offense. After taking an 11-9 lead on junior Leon Hudson's turnaround jump shot with 1:30 remaining in the first quarter, the Wildcats made only four field goals in the next 17½ minutes as they fell behind 30-14 by halftime and 44-20 after three periods. Unforced turnovers, forced shots, lost opportunities in transition and misfires on open jumpers all contributed to Temple's struggles.
“We didn't do a good job on offense. That's the main thing, because this might have been the least points Belton scored all year,” Thomas said. “We missed wide-open shots. That's how they play – they kind of bait you into those shots. We've got to knock them down. That's what I told the guys. The gym is open at 6 every morning, so go work on your game. I've been stressing that for three years since I've been here.”
Said Fossett, who got a strong defensive game from senior guard Luke Bramlett: “I don't think we played particularly well offensively. We didn't shoot the ball as well as we can, but we did enough defensively to win the game.”
Downs made a 3 from the left corner 15 seconds into the game, prompting a displeased Thomas to immediately call a timeout and reinforce Temple's game plan with his players.
“According to the game plan, we weren't supposed to help off of No. 35 (Downs), because No. 35 and No. 44 (TJ Johnson) score the majority of their points,” Thomas said. “It made it look like Coach never said anything.”
Although Downs got the roll on a shot in the lane a minute later for a 5-2 lead, Temple made an effective – albeit brief – recovery. The Wildcats used Hall's right-wing 3, Jackson's long, straight-on bank shot, Jackson's running banker and Hudson's 14-foot turnaround jumper to build an 11-9 lead with 1:30 left in the opening period.
ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE: Belton junior forward TJ Johnson made three 3-point baskets and scored a game-high 27 points in the Tigers' 53-31 win at Temple in their District 12-6A opener Tuesday afternoon at Wildcat Gym. The 6-foot-6, 195-pound Johnson scored 18 points to help Belton (10-1) seize a 30-14 halftime advantage. Johnson, a third-year varsity starter who's averaging 27.7 points per game this season, shot 4-for-4 on free throws and also blocked a pair of 3-point attempts by the Wildcats. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
That, however, was the high-water mark for Temple. TJ Johnson wrapped an inside basket and a tip-in of his own miss around Morgan's driving basket to propel Belton to a 15-11 advantage. And when TJ Johnson blocked Peoples' corner 3 to end the first quarter, Belton's junior standout directed some pointed words toward the Wildcats as the teams walked off the court.
The second quarter is when the Tigers gained separation, outscoring the Wildcats 15-3 to go up 30-14. Downs started the period with a 3 from up top and ended it with a 10-foot floater. In between, TJ Johnson made a right-wing 3, scored an on-the-move basket off the glass, nailed a 3 from the top – followed by his excited fist pump – and added two free throws.
“You try to contain him as much as possible. He's a good player,” Thomas said of the well-rounded TJ Johnson, who scored 43 points against Bastrop Cedar Creek, 37 against Pflugerville Connally and 32 against Bastrop. “He's a high-IQ kid and you've got to tip your hat to him.”
A varsity fixture since his freshman season, Downs missed the entire 2019-20 season because of an injury as Belton went 22-14 overall but 6-10 in district for sixth place in 12-6A. TJ Johnson said having the reliable, sharp-shooting Downs back in the lineup has given the Tigers a huge boost.
“We're a lot better,” TJ Johnson said of Downs' impact. “He's our primary ball-handler and we can trust him to knock down shots and make good decisions, so having him out there is a huge help.”
RISE AND FIRE: Temple sophomore guard Jaylon Hall takes a 3-point shot over Belton senior defender Luke Bramlett during the visiting Tigers' 53-31 win against the Wildcats in Tuesday afternoon's District 12-6A duel at Wildcat Gym. Hall scored eight points, second on Temple's team to senior guard Aundra Jackson's 16. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
With Temple trailing 30-14 to begin the second half, Hall gave the Wildcats a brief spark early in the third quarter by penetrating for a pair of baskets to trim the Tigers' lead to 32-18. However, Trap Johnson fired a long lead pass to the left wing, where his older brother TJ buried an open 3 in transition to ignite a 12-0 Belton run that included a Jones bucket on the break and Henry's hard drive for a hoop.
Temple couldn't find any viable solutions against Belton's 2-3 zone defense, and Jackson's driving basket with 8 seconds remaining finally ended the Wildcats' scoring drought of 6-plus minutes. The Tigers led 44-20 after three quarters, with TJ Johnson having outscored Temple 23-20.
TJ Johnson added two more highlights early in the fourth to help seal Belton's runaway win. He penetrated from the wing for a powerful two-handed slam, then on Temple's ensuing possession Shorter appeared to have an open 3 from the right corner before Johnson quickly made up ground and soared to block the shot out of bounds.
Downs then made a floater for a 48-20 Tigers lead before Jackson hit two 3s and scored eight points in the final 4:45 to help Temple outscore Belton 11-9 in the fourth.
“We have to get back to the drawing board and try to get ready for our next district game (Jan. 5 at Bryan),” said Thomas, whose team will play at Austin Akins next Tuesday and host Austin St. Michael's one day later.
Belton will be off until its hosts 12-6A opponent Killeen at 4:30 p.m. next Tuesday. Fossett was the Kangaroos' head coach for seven seasons from 2005-12, going 193-51 with six district championships.
DISTRICT 12-6A BOYS BASKETBALL
BELTON 53, TEMPLE 31
Belton 15 15 14 9 – 53
Temple 11 3 6 11 – 31
Belton (10-1, 1-0) – TJ Johnson 27, Kayden Downs 16, Bryan “Itty” Henry 3, Trap Johnson 2, Ben Jones 2, Seth Morgan 2, Trent West 1.
Temple (4-7, 0-2) – Aundra Jackson 16, Jaylon Hall 8, Quinton Anderson 4, Leon Hudson 2, Mekhi Gutierrez 1.
3-point field goals – Belton: 5 (TJ Johnson 3, Downs 2); Temple: 3 (Jackson 2, Hall 1).
Free throws – Belton 12-15; Temple 2-7.
Junior varsity – Temple 68, Belton 47
Freshman – Belton Red 61, Temple Blue 58; Temple White 49, Belton White 45
Temple senior Mekhi Gutierrez (33) attempts to grab a rebound while surrounded by Belton's Trap Johnson (23), Kayden Downs (35) and TJ Johnson during the visiting Tigers' 53-31 win Tuesday afternoon in District 12-6A action at Wildcat Gym. It was the league opener for Belton, which improved to 10-1 overall. Temple (4-7) fell to 0-2 in 12-6A. (Photo by Matt Corley, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)