The Payson High School varsity girls basketball team hosted the Payson Invitational Tournament Thursday and Friday. The Horns had a 2-2 tournament record, losing their last game 62-60 in the final seconds despite having a substantial lead throughout.
Regardless, coach Shaun Hardt said his team may be peaking at just the right point in the season.
The Lady Longhorns handled their first two games with relative ease, downing Globe 59-50 and St. Johns 82-65.
Their third game pitted them against Sinagua, a team that featured several talented athletes. Payson struggled with Sinagua, losing by a score of 77-59, hitting 11 three-pointers in the game. That dropped Payson into the consolation round where they faced Gilbert, which also had two wins and one loss.
Payson dominated offensively and defensively in the first period. Reanna Martinez played a significant roll for the Horns, scoring 18 points in the game. Payson nearly doubled Gilbert's score, finishing the first period 20-11. In the second period, Payson dominated the boards, but both teams began to struggle with their execution at the post. A significant factor in that struggle for both teams was the tough physical play in the paint. With outstanding full-court defensive pressure provided by Jennifer Plumb, Payson was able to hold their lead, however, finishing the first half 38-21.
With 5:34 to go in the third, the Lady Horns were up 41-25. Martinez picked off a lob-pass from Gilbert and fed it into Plumb for the easy layup. Payson also seemed to have little trouble with Gilbert's full-court press, moving the ball with ease down the court. Despite the Payson athletic edge, Gilbert improved penetration to the post.
With 2:00 minutes to go in the third period, it was 49-33 with Payson still holding a decisive lead. Martinez began to attract double and triple team coverage down low, but almost always drew the foul and was consistent at the foul line.
In the fourth period Payson held on- to their 10-point lead at the start with the score 55-45 with 5:27 to go.
With 1 minute left in the game, Gilbert battled Payson with an intensity that brought them to within three points, for the first time since the opening minutes of the game. Then with :44 seconds left on the clock they tied it up.
Whitney Hardt brought the ball to the basket and was fouled forcing her to the charity stripe. Her first shot found the mark but the second bounced out with Gilbert grabbing the rebound and taking down the court for 2. With :25 seconds to go, Gilbert now had their first lead 61-60.
As the clock ran out, Gilbert had narrowly pulled off the come-from-behind upset, defeating Payson 62-60.
"Fatigue is a big factor for both teams but for us, we don't have a lot of depth, so we rely on Reanna quite a bit," the coach said. "We had her playing guard and at the post back and forth in the same game."
Hardt was also impressed with the play of Ashley Herrera who, despite playing with a dislocated finger, turned in a stellar performance. "She played very consistent throughout the tournament," he said. "We can always count on her to get in there and score when we need it. She sees the court well and is not afraid to take chances and get the ball to the basket."
Hardt said the bench was the main difference between the two teams.
"The rest of our girls do a great job of playing hard and never giving up and Gilbert was just as tired but I think they have a lot more depth and a lot more height to come back and bang on her (Martinez) while they give their main players a rest," he said.
"Whitney especially as a freshman really stepped up and helped us in a lot of ways, and Trista Carlton, who is a sophomore, really came to life in this tournament and the two of them were really our key bench players, he said. Whitney said the end of the game was the toughest part for her. "I thought we tried hard but we should have done better in the second half," she said.
Carlton said over-confidence also may have played a factor in the game with Gilbert. "I think we could have won but we kind of came out in the second half thinking we had it wrapped up but it turned out that they just wanted it more than us," she said.
Reanna Martinez who was the only Longhorn named to the all-tournament team said the second half of the game was tough.
"In the first half, our offense did pretty well. But in the second half, we kind of got a little lazy," she said. "As for me, I was dog tired and I'm sure we all were."
The Lady Horns are currently tied for second place in the 3A East region, with perhaps their toughest game of the season coming up just after the holiday break against Round Valley. The two teams meet Friday Jan. 12.