As the East region's tournament runner-up, the Lady Longhorn basketball team has earned the right to play in the 16-team Class 3A State showdown to begin today (Tuesday) at various sites in Flagstaff.
With their advantageous two-seed, the Horns are slated to open against Ganado, which enters the big dance as the North Division's third-place finisher.
Game time is 10 a.m. at Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University.
Lady Horn assistant coach Rory Huff scouted Ganado last week and returned to the Rim country with reports indicating the Lady Horns could emerge victorious if the players dominate on the boards and execute their defensive presses well.
If the Lady Horns dispatch the pesky Hornets, they will advance to the second round Wednesday against the winner of the South No. 1 vs. West No. 4 opening round game.
The site and time of that game has not been set.
The state tournament continues Friday and Saturday at America West arena in Phoenix. In the 20-plus year history of girls' basketball at Payson High, the team has never reached the state semifinals.
Ticket to the dance
After finishing third in the regular season East standings behind Round Valley and Snowflake, the Lady Horns were awarded a bye in the first round of the regional tournament, which began Feb. 6.
The following day in Wilson Dome the Horns began pursuing a regional tournament championship by whipping Show Low 52-45.
Although the Cougars had finished as one of the cellar dwellers in the regular season title chase, the team gave the Horns fits all evening long.
"They came to play," coach Shaun Hardt said. The Cougars might have pulled off the upset of the season by whipping favored Payson had it not been for the scoring antics of Whitney Hardt the coach's daughter.
The freshman point guard, who just returned to the lineup after suffering a partially torn hamstring, finished with a game-high 17 points.
With the hard-earned victory, Payson advanced to the tournament semifinals Friday afternoon in Show Low.
Pitted against a Snowflake team that had beaten them twice in the regular season, the Lady Horns put on a show of true grit.
Behind Brandi Waugh's game-high 20 points, the determined Lady Horns whipped the talented Lobos 55-51.
The key to the win, Waugh said, was the fact that "we just played harder the length of the floor and put pressure on their guards."
Playing the shooting guard position, Waugh hit one three-pointer but scored most of her points on jump shots from inside the three ball arc.
"I liked shooting from the baseline most," she said.
In addition to the prolific scoring of Waugh, the Horns received 14 points from Reanna Martinez and eight from Trista Carlton.
Also scoring were Whitney Hardt (5), Jennifer Plumb (3), Ashli Herrera (2), LeeAnn Owens (2) and Samantha Ellsworth (1).
The Payson victory served as a revenge of sorts for a late season 57-50 loss to the Lobos Jan. 23 in Wilson Dome. In that game, Payson fell behind early and spent the remainder of the evening chasing the Lobos as PHS fans sat glued to their seats.
With the Lady Horn victory, Snowflake fell to the third seed and will open the state tournament against the North No. 2 finisher.
Payson's semifinal win also propelled the team into the East championship game against longtime rival Round Valley.
But this time around, there was no rousing upset for Horn fans to frolic through. Playing like the regular season champions they are, the Elks bugeled their way to a 73-60 triumph.
As the tournament gold medalist, Round Valley opens the state showdown against the North No. 4 seed.
In the loss to the Elks, Martinez took team scoring honors with 15 points. Carlton finished with 14 and Waugh had another good evening with 12.
Others contributing to the Horn cause were Herrera (6), Whitney Hardt (4), Plumb (4), Amy Wilcox (2), Ellsworth (2) and April Cheek (1).