A pair of weekend wins over Blue Ridge, 56-32, and Pinnacle, 93-13, have just about ensured the Lady Longhorns a place in the season-ending East regional tournament with an advantageous top-four seed.
Only a total collapse against Show Low (Jan. 30), Round Valley (Jan. 31) and Alchesay (Feb. 2) could hurt the Lady Horns chances of opening the tournament with the home court advantage.
Top-four seeds earn the privilege of playing the first two rounds, Feb. 6 and 7, on their home courts. According to Class 3A playoff rules, teams that finish among the region's bottom four must travel to the site of the higher seed.
After the first two rounds, the tournament continues Feb. 9 and 10 in Show Low.
Top-four finishers there receive berths into the 3A state tournament to begin Feb. 9 on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Currently, the Lady Horns boast 9-3 credentials in the East race (16-7 overall) and are in second place behind Round Valley and Snowflake who are tied for first.
The key to holding on to second place, first year Lady Horn coach Shaun Hardt said, is the team's play without the ball.
"Our defense has to play solid," Hardt said, "both our matchup (zone) and presses must work."
In regular season games, the Lady Horns have shown both 2-2-1 and 1-2-1-1 presses that have disrupted the flow of opponents.
In the win over Blue Ridge, it was Samantha Ellsworth who turned up the heat defensively and allowed the Lady Horns to run out to the 24-point win after leading only 12-11 at the end of the first quarter.
"She played super defense in our press," Hardt said.
Offensively, the team was paced by Brandi Waugh's shooting, who finished with a game-high 15 points. Jennifer Plumb tallied 14 and Reanna Martinez the team scoring leader most of the season had 11. Ashli Herrera contributed nine.
After derailing Blue Ridge Friday in Wilson Dome, the team traveled Saturday to near Deer Valley where it capped a week that saw the team play four crucial East games in five days.
In Deer Valley, the Lady Horns had little trouble in squashing Pinnacle a newly built school in its first year of varsity competition. Entering the game, PHS team members realized all too well that Pinnacle would not present much of an obstacle.
So, the challenge to the girls, Hardt said, "was to take (the game) seriously."
The team responded by turning in one of their best scoring nights of the season, almost reaching the century mark.
Trista Carlton paved the way to the 80-point victory margin by scoring a game-high 18 points. Martinez tallied 17 and sharpshooting guard LeeAnn Owens had 15. In hitting two three-balls, Owens "shot the lights out," Hardt said.
While the Lady Horns appear to be in solid shape for a long run into the state tournament and a possible berth in the final four to be played at Phoenix America West Arena, the team would receive a boost if freshman point guard Whitney Hardt the coach's daughter could return to action soon. Whitney, who started the season on the freshman and jayvee team, was promoted to the varsity team and had shown signs of becoming the ball handler the coaching staff said they were looking for.
Showing a good deal of courage for a first year player, Whitney was adept at breaking down defenses with her determined drives to the basket.
Just when it appeared Whitney could make a continuing contribution to the team, she was sidelined with a pulled hamstring muscle. Currently the injury is being treated by a local physical therapist but Whitney's return remains doubtful.
"She could be out until track begins," the coach said.