A four-game losing streak, including weekend losses to Holbrook 57-52 and Round Valley 60-47, has ended Lady Longhorns' hopes to bask in the honors of an East Region championship.
Only three weeks ago, the Lady Horns were 4-0 in the region and fresh off a three-game sweep of Snowflake, Blue Ridge and Show Low.
At that point in the campaign, the Horns had the region at their feet and were the toasts of the small-town prep hoop world. But almost as quickly as the team jumped out to the lightning start, it hit the skids.
Coach Jerry Daniels says one of the reasons for the team's demise is "an almost lackadaisical" style of play in which the players become their own worst enemies with turnovers, missed shots and defensive miscues.
As an example of the doldrums the team is experiencing, the coach points to the five-point loss to the Roadrunners Friday evening in Holbrook.
"They (Holbrook) don't even belong on the same court with us," he said.
Earlier this season, the Lady Horns pounded Holbrook 62-46 almost setting a single-quarter school scoring record with 29 fourth stanza points. The record is 31.
But even in that win, Daniels had to challenge the girls at halftime to become more aggressive and not be intimidate by their opponents.
In the final seconds of Friday's game, the Lady Horns were on the verge of a game-winning rally which most title-contending teams could pull off.
Trailing 54-52 with less than 30 seconds remaining, the Lady Horns regained possession of the ball and seemingly were headed for a fast-break layup that would have tied the score, Daniels said.
A basket would also have "ol' mo" -- momentum --jumping to the side of the Horns.
But an ill-advised pass intended for senior forward Sidney Swartwood went awry as did Horn hopes for a win.
"After that, we had to foul them and they made some shots" to seal the upset victory, Daniels said.
OK, so the Horns (4-4 in the East) are in a slump. Now, what do they have to do to earn an advantageous seed into the regional playoffs set to begin Feb. 8?
Four consecutive wins in their final regular season games would be nice, Daniels said.
But that's a tall order to fill considering Payson must travel to Snowflake today (Jan. 25) to take on the tough Lobos who are in the hunt for a top-four East finish of their own.
The Lobos might also be harboring more than a tad bit of revenge after suffering through a 60-54 upset loss to Payson in early January.
In that game, Daniels devised a triangle and two specialty defenses to shut down the scoring of Snowflake's two top guns, Becky Elkins and Cari Adams. With sophomore Brandi Waugh shadowing Adams and Sidney Swartwood defending Elkins, the ploy worked as the two combined for only 15 points. The proud Lobos didn't return to their den happy hound dogs.
For today's game, the Snowflake staff will probably show up armed with counter measures to help free up Elkins and Adams from the Horn defense.
"Winning on their floor will be tough," Daniels admits.
Even if the Lady Horns fall to Snowflake, they could remain in contention for a top-four East finish in season-ending encounters against Blue Ridge (Jan. 28), Show Low (Feb. 1) and Alchesay (Feb.4).
The battle against Alchesay looms especially significant in that the Falcons already own a win over the Lady Horns Jan. 18 in Wilson dome.
Another triumph would keep the now 4-3 Falcons ahead of Payson in the East standings and provide a definite psychological edge should the teams lock horns for a third time in the regional tournament.
On most high school schedules, the Payson vs. Alchesay game in Whiteriver is listed as being played on Dec. 11. However, that matchup was rescheduled for Feb. 4.
Daniels said he was never told why Alchesay officials asked to have the game date changed.
One probable regular season scenario has the Lady Horns finishing at .500 and either fourth or fifth in the final East standings.
If that occurs, Payson could play Show Low in a pigtail opening round game of the regional tournament.
A victory over the Cougars would propel the Horns into the quarterfinals against the East Division champions who will be given a first-round bye.
But an opening round triumph would also ensure Payson of a top-four regional finish and its fifth consecutive seed into the Class 3A state tournament.
At season's beginning, a team goal was to earn a berth to the big show and play as deep as possible into the tournament.