East region prep previews have flickered to an end and the "big show" is about to light up the state basketball scene.
Action tips off for the Lady Longhorns in the all-important postseason East region tournament at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow (Feb. 9) in Wilson dome against the Show Low Cougars.
The Horns (6-6) earned the right to host the opening round game by virtue of a fourth-place finish in the East regular season standings.
Show Low (5-7) enters the tournament as the fifth-place seed after dropping two nail-biters to Payson.
Payson first whipped Show Low 60-52 Jan. 8 in Wilson dome, then won 65-59 in overtime Feb. 1 in Show Low.
For the Lady Horns to achieve their preseason goal of a berth in the state tournament, set for tip-off Feb. 15 in Flagstaff, the team will need a third-consecutive victory over the Cougars.
If the cats can be caged, the Horns will advance to state as a minimum four-seed.
A win over SL also would propel the Horns into the regional tournament quarterfinals against regular-season champion Round Valley (11-1).
An opening round loss to Show Low would wrap up the 2000 campaign for the Lady Horns.
"It's a big game," PHS coach Jerry Daniels said.
If the Horns are to emerge victorious over Show Low and earn the right to play in the state tournament, the Payson defense will have to put the clamps on Cougar hot-shot Cherie McNeil.
In the last meeting of the two teams, McNeil came out red-hot hitting a trio of three-point super shots, a two-point field goal and single free throw in the opening quarter.
McNeil's assault on the scoreboard propelled Show Low out to an early 23-11 lead. Facing adversity square in the eye, the Lady Horns miraculously survived the onslaught to salvage the crucial triumph.
One of the keys to the come-from-behind-win, Daniels said, was "some defensive adjustments that held her (McNeil) scoreless for three quarters."
After her 12-point first-quarter outburst, McNeil scored only one other basket which came late in the game.
In Wednesday's East tournament opener, Daniels plans no gimmick or specialty defenses to slow McNeil. Rather, his charges will open with a traditional man-to-man defense featuring senior Sidney Swartwood -- a rugged defender -- shadowing the Cougar star.
If Swartwood can contain the scoring antics of McNeil, the Horns could be in the driver's seat steaming toward a state tournament appearance.
Should McNeil cut lose, it'll be Katie-bar-the-door for Horn faithful.
There's little doubt defense will play a pivotal role against Show Low. But also, the Horn offense also must shoulder a huge burden now that leading scorer Rheanna Martinez is no longer with the team. The junior opted to quit the squad Jan. 25.
Playing without Martinez against Show Low, a trio of Lady Horn sharpshooters stepped up to fill the scoring void.
Jennifer Plumb contributed 18 points, Ashli Herrera had 14 and Kaitlin Wilkins 13.
The contributions of Herrera, who is only a freshman, were especially significant since most of her production came in the crucial fourth-quarter and overtime period.
In the final stanza of regulation, she had seven points. In OT, she finished three-for-four from the charity stripe.
Plumb was also a force in the extra period, tallying five points.
Daniels said the win in Show Low was a stirring one for him.
"This was one of the most satisfying victories of my coaching career," he said. "There was no quit in the girls; they refused to roll over."
The coach also cited Plumb for having her best game and Stormi Ewing for coming off the bench to give the team a lift with six points.
Another huge factor in the triumph was the ability of the Horns to break Show Low's defensive pressure. In the late rally, court generals Jamie Peace and LeeAnn Owens befuddled the Cougar defenders with outstanding floor play.
"The two took care of the ball and helped set up and direct the offense. They just shredded Show Low's press to help us dominate in overtime," Daniels said.
The coach also acknowledged the workman-like efforts of Wilkins, Swartwood and Brandi Waugh. "They were strong on the boards and played very aggressive defense," he said.
One last game
The regular season wrapped up for the Lady Longhorns Friday evening in Whiteriver with a 62-46 loss to the Alchesay Falcons. Originally, the game was scheduled to be played Dec. 11, but at the request of Alchesay officials it was rescheduled.
The Horns entered the contest knowing a victory would earn a tie with Alchesay (7-5) for third place in the East.
Then, a coin flip would have been needed to determine which team would enter the regional tournament as the three-seed and which would fall to four.
But a coin flip became a moot point when the Falcons ran away with the victory.
Wilkins, who has been on a scoring roll as of late, finished with a game-high 23 points. Waugh contributed 11.
Behind regular season champion Round Valley in the East standings are Snowflake (9-3), Alchesay, Payson, Show Low, Holbrook (3-9) and Blue Ridge (0-12).
The Horns ended the regular season campaign with a 14-9 overall record which included a runner-up finish in the Holiday Hoops Tournament held Dec. 20 and 21 in Wilson dome.