If Tuesday night's season opener for the Payson High School girls varsity basketball team is any indication of things to come, the Lady Longhorns might just blow through the competition this year like a twister on an Iowa corn field.
The girls started their season with a nonconference game against Fountain Hills a school known for turning out some tough squads. Add to that reputation the number of experienced FH players returning to the hardwood, and you have the makings for a hard-fought battle.
Fountain Hills began pressing Payson full-court right from the start which the Lady Horns handled somewhat easily with outstanding passes and well-practiced ball control. The struggle stayed even early on with the teams tied 6-6.
Problems soon surfaced for both teams as players who found themselves in the paint were greeted with slaps to the face, or at least a good hockey-style hip-check. This apparently created some extra distraction to go along with first-game jitters as Payson was called twice for traveling late in the first period.
Fountain Hills began to pull ahead 12-9 and despite feverish attempts to catch up before the end of the first period, at the buzzer Payson was down 11-18.
In the second period, much of the action was between the No. 22s Payson's Reanna Martinez and Fountain Hills' Grace Tappie.
While Martinez has developed quite a reputation as a fierce competitor, her direct opponent seemed to be just as determined to walk away with the win. They both also seemed to know the other's moves before they made them, and for good reason. Both girls played last year on the Junior Nationals team and that's where the rivalry began.
"We were both nominated for Most Valuable Player, but I got it," Martinez said. "We've been rivals ever since."
As the action moved from one side of the court to the other, Martinez stole the ball from Tappie, only to run down the court and have her layup blocked by the same girl. The game within the game quickly ignited the crowd's enthusiasm.
By the end of the first half of action, Payson fought hard but was still down 24-20.
The second half of play saw the Lady Horns hit the court with a renewed spark. Payson's passing and superior teamwork by all players began to pay off as the girls whittled away at the FH lead, coming to within 2 at 28-26. Crowd support remained at a feverish level throughout the game, but when Martinez was fouled as she shot tying the game at 28 her go-ahead free-throw made the fans go wild.
As though that weren't enough, Payson then stole the ball from FH as they attempted a fast break, then brought the ball back down the court for another score. At the end of the third period Payson held a 6 point lead 40-34.
While Payson dominated the third period, this game was by no means over. With just over a minute to play in the fourth period, FH tied the score at 47, with many of the hoops scored by both teams being free-throws as a result of the continuing foul-fest. With 24 seconds left in the game, FH was up by 2 and the crowd erupted once again when with only 13 seconds left on the clock when Martinez tickled the twine for 2, tying the game and sending them into overtime.
At 9:15 p.m., the two teams headed into the four-minute overtime period.
This was where Payson really flexed its defensive muscle and superior physical conditioning. It's also where Jennifer Plumb who had been putting in outstanding play throughout the evening stepped up and showed what the Lady Horns are made of.
With Payson struggling to hold on to a 53-49 lead, Plumb drew a foul and with only 1:49 left on the clock made two clutch free-throws, demonstrating outstanding concentration under pressure. She then took the spotlight, providing outstanding defensive pressure, which put the ball back in her hands. Plumb then muscled her way through for another shot, was fouled, went to the line and made yet two more clutch shots.
Fountain Hills which had looked strong throughout the night began to unravel with an obvious lack of concentration. With just under a minute to go, Payson was up by 10 at 59-49. That's when Plumb was fouled yet again, and once more stepped up to the line and threw up two more perfect shots. When the final buzzer blew, Payson won 61-50.
After the game, coach Shawn Haught said their toughest challenge was implementing a whole new offensive system. "We just needed to get our girls to slow down and run their offensive set," Haught said. "If they can get it under control, they can beat anybody."
That same sense of determination was evidenced by all the players throughout the night, but especially with Jennifer Plumb's performance late in the game when it really counted.
"I knew we could do it and we proved it," Plumb said. "You just can't ever give up," she said.