Much of the Lady Longhorns' state championship hopes will rest squarely on the shoulders of senior forward Brandi Waugh and sophomore guard Whitney Hardt.
When the two Lady Horns' scoring leaders (just over 12 points per game each) are at their best, Payson is a tough team to beat.
When they are not filling up the nets, the Lady Horns struggle.
Solid proof of Waugh's effectiveness was highlighted Jan. 21 when she scored 21 points in a 61-57 win over Round Valley.
Weeks earlier during a crucial East region 74-65 thumping of Whiteriver Alchesay, Waugh lit up the scoreboard for 22 points.
Whitney, PHS coach Shaun Hardt's daughter, helped the Lady Horns (20-7), capture the championship of the season-opening Pepsi Cola River Valley Shoot Out by scoring 25 points in a 60-55 victory over tournament favorite River Valley.
But basketball is team game and if the Lady Horns are to be a title threat when the state tournament opens today in Flagstaff, other players will have to step up their rebounding, scoring, playmaking and defense.
Much of the rebounding and interior defense that helped the Lady Horns earn the East's third seed to state has been supplied by Brooke McRae and Trista Carlton.
When the two were pounding the boards corralling rebounds, the Lady Horns' fast break was much more effective.
On defense, the two were capable of clogging the lanes and preventing the opposition from scoring on easy lay-ups.
Carlton also takes a tenaciousness onto the court that can spread to teammates.
Other important cogs in the Horns' offense and defense are Haylee Huff, Ashli Herrera, Michelle Closs, Laura Crabtree, Shay McGee and Autumn Herrera.
Freshman Tanya Davis, who spent most of the regular season toiling on the freshman and jayvee teams, has also seen varsity playing time. When called upon, she's contributed at both ends of the floors.
If Amy Wilcox is able to play significant minutes in the state tournament, she could also be a factor. Sidelined most of the season by asthma, Wilcox is a excellent outside shooter and a capable ball handler. The only trouble is, asthma limits the time she can spend on the floor.
On to state
After finishing as the regular season region runner-up, the Lady Horns advanced to the East tournament Feb. 8 and 9 at Alchesay Whiteriver with a first round bye.
In the second round, Payson's hopes for a regional championship and a highly advantageous top seed to state were doused in a 76-49 loss to the Round Valley Elks. What made the defeat even tougher to absorb was the fact the Lady Horns whipped RV three times during the regular season.
In the tournament showdown for third place, the Lady Horns rebounded from the disappointment of missing out on the championship by defeating the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets 57-43.
With the win over BR, the Lady Horns advance to state against the West's No. 2 seed.
Blue Ridge advances to state as the East's fourth-place finisher and will play the West champion. Snowflake captured the region's first seed (vs. West four) and Round Valley the second (vs. West three).
In the Lady Horns regional tournament loss to Round Valley, the Elks made an early statement they were not about to drop a fourth decision to Payson.
After building a 17-7 first quarter lead, the Elks bugeled their way to a commanding 36-15 halftime cushion.
Although Payson received 19 points from Waugh and 10 from Ashli Herrera, it wasn't enough to offset the game-high 24 turned in by Elk Ashley Brown and 14 from teammate Cassandra Ping.
In cruising to the triumph, the Elks outscored Payson in every quarter.
For Payson, Carlton tallied seven, Whitney had six and Huff chipped in with four.
Davis, seeing her first regional tournament action, hit two of four free throws in the final quarter.
Early in the tournament finale against Blue Ridge, the Lady Horns appeared to be suffering from more of the maladies they lingered through in the loss to RV.
Trailing 14-8 and the memories of the disappointing defeat to the Elks still fresh in their minds, the Lady Horns could have easily folded up their tents and settled for the fourth-place tournament finish.
But instead, the Lady Horns turned up the intensity. By halftime, Payson had narrowed the Yellow Jacket lead to 23-22. Buoyed by Carlton's seven third quarter points, the Horns continued to turn up the heat. Just seconds into the fourth quarter, Payson had a 46-34 lead.
During the final minutes, the two teams exchanged baskets which allowed the cushion the Horns had built up in the furious third-quarter blitzkrieg to stand. Again, it was the one-two offensive punch of Waugh (15 points) and Hardt (13) that paved the way to the win. Carlton finished with 10, Ashli Herrera had seven and Huff tallied five.
If there was a disappointing note in the Lady Horns' victory, it was shoddy free throw shooting in which the team connected on 15 of 32 attempts. A 47 percent effort from the line won't bolster the team's victory cause in state tournament showdowns.
The good news for coach Hardt is that the players had all last week and yesterday's after-school practice session to correct their woeful free throw shooting.
If the team emerges victorious in the opening round today, it will advance to the quarterfinals tomorrow, also in Flagstaff.
The final two state rounds will be played Feb. 22 and 23 at America West Arena in Phoenix. A Lady Horn team has never reached the final four.
Horns' state tip-off
The Payson High School basketball teams will be playing back-to-back games in the same gymnasium when the state tournament opens today (Tuesday).
The Lady Horns tip-off Class 3A action against Camp Verde at 4 p.m. in Flagstaff High School gymnasium.
Immediately after, at about 5:30 p.m., the Longhorns take on West region champion Wickenburg, also in Flagstaff High School gymnasium.
Second-round state action continues Wednesday at Flagstaff High and Northern Arizona University.