In one of the biggest upsets of the prep sports season, the third-seeded Lady Longhorns unseated regular season champion Fountain Hills 59-56 in the final round of the Central Division tournament.
The victory means the Lady Horns will advance to the state tournament with the Central number-one berth in hoof and play the West's third-place finisher. That game will be played today (Tuesday) in Flagstaff.
At press time, Lady Horn coach Jerry Daniels said the time and location of the game had not yet been determined but the contest would he held at a high school -- Flagstaff, Coconino or Sinagua. Also, he said, the opponent will probably be Chino Valley.
After falling to Payson in the Central finale, Fountain Hills -- who had been beaten only once in regular season -- is now the Central's two-seed and will open the state tournament today against the South's runner-up.
The Central's third and final state playoff slot goes to Coolidge. The Bears are slated to play today against the West champion.
A rabbit out of the hat
After losing to Fountain Hills twice during the regular season, Daniels knew he'd have to reach deep into his coaching bag of tricks to find a way to whip the Falcons in the tournament championship played Feb. 13 at Arizona Boys Ranch.
What he came up with was a triangle and two gimmick defense in which two of his players would engage in man-to-man play and the three remaining would play a zone to guard the basket.
The reason behind his thinking was to find a way to slow FH's two top offensive threats Grace Tappe and Ernie Kill.
FH has been primarily a two-person team all season.
Lady Horns Sidney Swartwood and Brandi Waugh drew the man-to-man assignments on Tappe and Kill. Payson's other starters, Elizabeth Gille, Stephanie Robertson and Rheanna Martinez played the triangle zone defense.
The defense, Daniels said, threw a curve at Fountain Hills they weren't able to deal with.
"I think they were confused (by the defense)," he said.
In addition to the efforts of Swartwood and Waugh in guarding the FH aces, Daniels singled out Jamie Peace and Sam Ellsworth in relief of the PHS two starters.
"They helped give us rest when we needed it," the coach said.
Riding high on the tides of the triangle and two, the Horns jumped out to double-digit leads. But the Falcons refused to be denied and came clawing back within three points, 59-56, with seven seconds remaining on the scoreboard.
In possession of the ball, the FH brain trust set up a last-gasp, three-point shot attempt for Tappe that -- if successful -- would have dead-knotted the game and sent it into OT.
But Tappe -- who scored 22 points -- misfired under defensive pressure and the Horns rebounded just as the clock expired.
"A close one," Daniels said.
Offensively, the Horns received a team-high 21 points from Martinez. Robertson finished with 12, Waugh had nine and Swartwood eight.
Other tournament games
The Horns advanced to the championship finale with an opening round 65-28 victory over Santa Cruz Feb. 9 in Wilson Dome and a 69-55 triumph over Coolidge Feb. 12 at Arizona Boys Ranch.
In whipping Coolidge -- a team the Lady Horns had split with during the regular season -- Payson called upon the scoring antics of Robertson. The tall and talented senior filled up the nets for 23 points. Waugh, a freshman appearing in her first division tournament, wasn't the least bit intimidated with 15 points. Martinez tallied 12 and Swartwood had eight.
The key to the win, Daniels said, was a quick start that lifted the Horns to a 21-11 lead and then the ability to withstand several Bear rallies that closed the Horn cushion to just four points late in the fourth quarter.
In whipping Santa Cruz in the opener, the Horns maintained a perfect 3-0 season record against the outmanned Dust Devils.
A 24-4 scoring advantage in the first quarter erased any doubt early on who was going to pick up the "W."
Robertson led all scorers with 18 points; Waugh had 14.
In a voting of coaches at play's end, Payson placed both Robertson and Martinez on the all-tournament team.
Daniels said he was elated for the pair but the stunning tournament showing and upset of FH had to be attributed to all-around team play.
"Everybody stepped up or else we wouldn't have won it," he said.
The Lady Horns season-ending awards ceremony was originally scheduled to be held Wednesday, Feb. 24, but that could possibly change, Daniels said.
If the Lady Horns stay alive in the state tournament, the semifinals and finals are to be played Feb. 26 and 27.