There's little indecision in Lady Longhorn coach Jerry Daniels' thinking when he describes today's (Tuesday) Central Division matchup against the visiting Globe Tigers as a crucial encounter.
"It's a must game. We have to win," he says.
Game time is 7 p.m. in the Wilson dome.
The importance of the game lies in the regular season standings. Globe and Payson are tied for third place with 5-3 records. With only three games remaining, a Payson win would almost assure third place for the Horns and an advantageous playoff seed into the Central tournament to be contested Feb. 12 at Arizona Boys Ranch in Queen Creek.
A loss to Globe would drop Payson into a position in which the Horns would be paired against one of the Central's top teams in the division tournament's opening round. A loss there means no berth in the state tournament, which will begin Feb. 16 in Flagstaff.
The goal of the Lady Horns since the opening of preseason drills has been to earn a berth to state and insure the campaign doesn't end prematurely as it does for many Class 3A teams who don't own a ticket to the "Big Dance."
The road to the dance passes through the Wilson dome this evening, where Globe lies in wait, eager to earn a ducat of its own.
It doesn't take Adoph Rupp to know the Tiger's game strategy this evening will be to handcuff Payson's heralded Stephanie Robertson.
In a 78-59 PHS win over Globe on Jan. 5, Robertson -- a 5-foot-9 senior forward-- was unstoppable, scoring a school record 43 points.
If the Tiger brain trust foolishly allows her to roam as freely as she did in that game, chalk up another win for the Lady Horns.
But, Daniels doesn't think the Tigers will overlook the high flyin' scoring machine a second time.
"I'm sure they'll be out to try to stop her. She beat them almost by herself last time, " he said.
If the Globe defense finds some way to slow Robertson, others in the Horn lineup will have to step up. That responsibility could fall directly on the shoulders of Rheanna Martinez, Sidney Swartwood or possibly freshman Brandi Waugh who, Daniels said, "has been playing great."
But the key to Lady Horn success all year long has been well-balanced scoring in which at least four of the five starters finish in double figures.
Horns 2-1 in last three games
As evidence of the success of the team approach, Daniels points to recent triumphs over Miami, 74-59, and Cactus Shadows, 71-40.
In the victory over Cactus Shadows Saturday evening in Cave Creek, Robertson was her usual high-scoring self, finishing with a game-high 21 points.
But she also had a strong supporting cast, led by Martinez (16 points), Waugh (11) and Swartwood (10).
After a slow start in which the Lady Horns built only a 13-10 cushion, the Horn offense heated up and pulled away to the lopsided win.
A day earlier, in the old Payson High School gymnasium, the Horns "Big Four" were on track as Robertson finished with 23 points, Swartwood 13, Martinez 10 and Waugh nine.
In the two wins, Daniels said, the Lady Horns "began to come together as a team."
The only time during the past week of play that the Horns stumbled occurred Jan. 19 in Coolidge.
The Bears, a legitimate Central and state championship contender, rode a well-balanced scoring attack of their own to a 50-47 win over the Lady Horns.
In the loss, Daniels said, "We had a great team effort, but missed some key baskets and free throws."
Also, he said, "we had some unforced turnovers and that was the difference in the game."
In the seesaw matchup, Payson jumped out to an early 13-11 lead, but Coolidge struggled back to tie it 28-28 at halftime.
Thanks to a couple of big three-point shots, the Bears built a 42-35 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Lady Horns rallied to outscore Coolidge 12-8 in the final eight minutes, but five missed free throws stalled the PHS comeback express.
The Lady Horns were awarded a whopping 26 charity tosses in the game, but hit only 15.
After watching his team pick up only nine free throws, Coolidge coach Dave Dobbins might have been left wondering what happened to good old-fashioned Grizzly home cookin'. The Bears made six.
Robertson finished with 20 points, Martinez had 11, Swartwood 10 and Elizabeth Gille six.