A well rested, but inexperienced, Payson High School boys basketball team begins pursuit of the class 3A state championship Tuesday in Flagstaff.
Tip off in the first-round 3A tournament game will be determined this weekend in Winslow by tournament director Don Petronovich.
Also, the playing time and location a Flagstaff high school or one of two sites on the Northern Arizona University campus will be decided.
Because the Horns finished fourth in the East, they will be seeded against the West champion possibly Fountain Hills.
The West region tournament wraps up tomorrow (Saturday).
Because of a scheduling oddity, the last time the Longhorns played was Feb. 9 against Show Low in Whiteriver.
Coach Mike Loutzenheiser canceled practices on both Monday and Tuesday in hopes some of the players would recover from the flu bug that hampered their play late in the season.
But, going nine days without a game and then jumping directly into the state tournament could be a big adjustment for Loutzenheiser's young charges.
All Rim country eyes will be focused on Flagstaff to see if the Horns who have no players with state tournament experience can handle the heat of performing in the big dance.
The team goes to state as the East's final seed.
The Longhorns could have improved upon that berth and opened with a foe less formidable than a region champion had they performed better in the regional tournament held Feb. 5, 8 and 9.
The Horns opened the postseason well enough whipping Alchesay 71-52 in a first-round tournament game played in Wilson Dome.
But when the tournament shifted to Alchesay Whiteriver for the final two rounds, the Horns dropped back-to-back decisions to Blue Ridge, 54-33, and Show Low, 65-53.
Blue Ridge eventually captured the East championship and will open the state tournament against the West's No. 4 finisher.
Snowflake, the East runner-up, is slated to take on the West's third seed.
As the East's third-place finisher, Show Low battles the West's runner-up.
What's up with this?
The Horns' East regional semifinal loss to Blue Ridge turned into a Yellow Jacket free-throw shooting exhibition that had Loutzenheiser scratching his head in bewilderment.
In one of the most lopsided tallies this season, the Jackets were awarded 28 free throws on 23 Longhorn fouls and were successful on 16. At the other end of the spectrum, the Horns took a minuscule five free throw attempts on 11 Jacket fouls and sunk three.
By receiving 23 more foul shots than Payson, Blue Ridge was able to thwart any rally the Horns could muster.
Loutzenheiser refused to question the officiating of the game, but did quietly wonder how such a huge free-throw discrepancy could occur in a game between two closely-matched teams.
When the two teams met in the regular season, Blue Ridge was ticketed for 26 violations and Payson drew 24.
A White Mountain basketball website that draws comments from players and fans, did question the competency of the officiating in the regional tournament game.
Also in the loss to BR, the Horns suffered through the rarity of not having a single player score in double digits.
Nicky Cassuto's nine points led the Horns' scoring parade.
Mike Barr, a 6-foot 5-inch center who usually reaches double figures, was held to a season-low four points.
Jake Swartwood tallied six before fouling out.
With the loss to Blue Ridge, the Horns fell into the battle for third place the following day, also in Whiteriver. Payson entered the showdown as definite underdogs having lost to the Cougars three times earlier in the season.
With upset hopes fueling them, Payson stayed close most of the first half thanks to 10 points from Barr.
Trailing 37-34 at halftime and 48-41 early in the fourth quarter, the Longhorns remained in striking distance.
But late in the game, Show Low rallied on eight of 11 free throw shooting and a three-pointer by Doug Mathis.
Throughout the game, the Horns were buoyed by the offense of Barr who finished with a game-high 15 points.
Cassuto and Waylon Pettet contributed seven each.