Finishing with a 3-1 record, the Lady Longhorns (11-2 overall) played their way to a second-place finish in the Holiday Hoops Invitational basketball tournament.
The only loss the Lady Horns suffered during the 16-team hardwood shoot out Thursday and Friday in Wilson Dome was a 58-32 defeat to the two-time defending state champion Tuba City.
That loss, which occurred in the championship finale Friday evening, relegated the Lady Horns to the silver-medal slot.
Tuba City, a 3A school representing the North region where many former state champions reside, returned to its reservation home with a 4-0 record and the tournament championship.
The fact two teams from the 3A conference reached the finals by outplaying several 4A and 5A schools made the tournament a showcase for small-school hoop play.
"Girls basketball is one of those sports where the size of the school doesn't make a lot of difference," tournament director Teddy Pettet said.
In the opening round, the Lady Horns got off to a running start by whipping Phoenix Christian 53-45. Paired against highly regarded Class 4A Flagstaff Sinagua in the second round, the Lady Horns copped a 53-45 victory. Semifinal action saw Payson use their dominance on the boards to whip the Round Valley Elks 46-38.
Since the Elks are one of the teams, along with Snowflake, expected to contend for the East region championship, Payson's win over RV could be an omen of things to come.
"It really helps our confidence," PHS coach Shaun Hardt said.
In the tournament outing, Payson took an early lead over the Elks, mostly by turning offensive rebounds into two-point baskets.
Corralling a team-high nine rebounds, center Trista Carlton paced the Lady Horn rebounding effort.
Late in the game, Round Valley closed to within one, 31-30, but the scrappy Horns weathered the storm by relying on clutch shooting from Brandi Waugh, Ashli Herrera and Whitney Hardt.
Waugh and Herrera tallied 14 points each and Whitney had 13.
Although the win over the Elks was a shot in the arm for the PHS basketball program, the victory doesn't count in the all-important region standings.
The two regular season meetings that will be recorded in the standings are slated for Jan. 12 in Wilson Dome and Jan 25 in Eagar. Tip off times for both at 7:30 p.m.
According to Hardt, those two matches will be crucial in determining the eventual East champion.
"I still think Round Valley is the team to beat," he said.
More tournament action
In the win over Sinagua, the Lady Horns jumped out to a 13-8 lead and seemed to be in position to coast to an easy "W."
But in second-quarter action, Sinagua turned on a half-court press the Payson offense couldn't handle.
"We got a little rattled by it," coach Shaun Hardt said.
By halftime, Sinagua had rallied for a 26-22 lead.
After a few locker room adjustments, the Lady Horns came out with a vengeance, outscoring Flagstaff 14-6 in the third quarter.
The turnaround, coach Hardt said, could be attributed to better ball movement on offense and hard-nosed defense, especially from freshman guard Haylee Huff.
"She only scored one point, but her defense was the difference," the coach said.
The tournament opening 13-point win over Phoenix Christian was not as close as the final score indicated.
At the conclusion of the first quarter, Payson led 20-4, which allowed Hardt the opportunity to experiment with his line-up.
"We played different players and defenses to see what would work," he said.
Phoenix Christian nibbled away at the 16-point cushion the Lady Horns had built early, but were never able to close the gap to a single digit.
Waugh's 17 points led Payson's well-rounded attack in which nine players scored. Carlton tallied 14 and Whitney contributed 12.
If there was a positive aspect in the loss to Tuba City, it would be that the Lady Horns held the high-powered Warrior offense to a tournament-low 58 points.
In earlier blowout's, Tuba City tallied 94 points against Globe, 92 against Cesar Chavez and 71 in a victory over 5A Gilbert.
According to Pettet who doubles as a high school official during the hoop season Tuba City is a legitimate contender to three-peat the state title.
"They are that good," he said.
For Payson, Herrera led all scorers with 12 points. Carlton had seven and Whitney finished with three.
The Lady Horns have the opportunity to once again test their mettle against Tuba City when the Rim country team travels to Warrior gym tomorrow (Saturday).
Game time is 6 p.m. in the high school pavilion.
Beyond the arc
The individual highlight of Holiday Hoops was a three-point shoot-out that featured one player from each of the teams.
The championship finals, held at halftime of the Payson/Tuba City game, pitted Tempe Marcos de Niza senior Angie Schultz against Tucson Canyon del Oro freshman Jessie Ingram.
Both sunk eight of 15 shot attempts in the regulation shoot.
To decide a winner, Pettet called for a five-shot sudden death shoot-out.
By sinking three of five attempts from beyond the 19-foot, 9-inch arch, Ingram claimed the hot shot crown.