The Longhorn boys basketball team will have renewed confidence when it returns to action Dec. 29 and 30 in the Prescott Bradshaw Mountain Invitational Tournament.
The team's fresh air of poise and coolness is the result of back-to-back victories over Prescott, 69-54, and state-ranked Pinnacle, 67-55.
Prior to the two triumphs, the Horns (3-6) were muddled in a six-game losing streak that included four lopsided defeats suffered in the Marana Invitational held Dec. 4 to 6 near Tucson.
During the losses, the Horns only notable showing came when it took a talented Las Vegas, Nev. Rancho team to the wire before dropping a narrow decision.
Following the Longhorns upset in Prescott Dec. 10, coach Mike Loutzenheiser lauded the team members.
"Our defensive effort was so much better that it has been," he said. "We really hit the boards hard and tried to take advantage of our transition offense. That gave us a lot of easy baskets."
Since the losses in Marana, Loutzenheiser -- who guided the Longhorns to the state quarterfinals last season -- has changed his defensive plans and schemes.
"We will run a lot more zone this year than we ever have in the past," he said.
Last year's team relied mostly on a switching man-to-man defense that usually pushed opponents out of their offensive sets.
The coach said he decided to change to zones to better take advantage of his team's personnel who might not be as athletic as last season's crew.
Overall, he expressed satisfaction with the team's ability to shift defensive gears nine games into the season.
"I was very happy with out ability to implement some of the new things we have been doing in practice," he said. He also lauded the team for turning in their two best games of the season in the wins over Prescott and Pinnacle.
"The kids did great jobs," he said.
In the victory over the home standing Badgers, both teams got off to sluggish starts.
At the end of the opening eight minutes, Payson clung to an 8-6 lead mostly because neither team could cash in on their scoring opportunity.
At the onset of the second quarter, however, the Longhorns caught fire behind eight points from Kyle Hubbard and six from Mike Barr.
A 22-11 Horn scoring advantage in the second stanza propelled Payson to a 28-19 halftime lead PHS never relinquished.
The third quarter turned out to be the Horns' most prolific scoring outing of the year. Posting 23 points, eight of which came off the hot hand of Andy Sargent, the Horns ran out to the largest lead of the game 51-33.
With a solid lead to cling to, Payson simply exchanged baskets with the Badgers in the final eight minutes of play.
Most of the season, the Longhorns have relied on Barr, a talented 6-foot, 7-inch senior, for their scoring. But in whipping Prescott, the Horns showcased, for the first time this season, a well-balanced offense led by Sargent (16 points). Barr finished with 12, Hubbard and Darren Daniels had 10 each and Donnie Wilbanks tallied eight.
In dismantling highly regarded Pinnacle Dec. 12 in Wilson dome, the Longhorns once again relied on a well balanced offense that featured three players in double figures. Barr finished with 16, Hubbard had 13 and Sargent contributed 11.
Also for Payson, Cort Connolly (eight), Daniels (seven) and Wilbanks (four) made significant offensive contributions.
After a 20-20 first quarter deadlock, the game turned Payson's way in the second stanza in which the Horns outscored Pinnacle 14-9.
Throughout the second half, the Longhorns continued to pull away by relying mostly on new found defense, fast break offense and a solid offensive attack.
During the upcoming two-weeks of down time in the PHS schedule, Loutzenheiser says he will use the practice hours to prepare for what he hopes will be a solid effort in the Bradshaw tournament. He plans to continue to fine tune the team's transition offense and zone defense.