The 16-team Payson Holiday Hoops Basketball Invitational Tournament tipped off yesterday (Monday) in both Wilson Dome and the old PHS gymnasium.
In the opening round, the host Lady Longhorns ran past Fountain Hills, 63-25.
The Lady Horns returned to action at 5:30 p.m., yesterday in a winner's bracket game against the winner of a first-round contest, pitting San Luis against Many Farms (results not available at press time).
The tournament wraps up with the championship game at 8 p.m. today (Tuesday) in Wilson Dome. The clash will be preceded at 5 p.m. by the consolation bracket championship.
Only a day prior to the tournament, Horn coach Rory Huff said he was anticipating a topnotch invitational.
"We've got some very good teams in there," he said. "It will be interesting."
The coach also said that all his players are in good health and anticipating a strong tournament effort.
If there is a favorite in the field, it might be the powerful Round Valley Elks. The Lady Elks are coming off a Class 3A state championship season in which they lost just one game.
With many of last year's starters returning, the Lady Elks are expected to make a run at the state crown.
A huge void on the Round Valley team is the recent loss of former Lady Longhorn star Whitney Hardt.
A starter at point guard for the Elks last season, Hardt has left Springerville/Eagar and moved with her family to Queen Creek. The move was the result of Shaun Hardt's, Whitney's father, dismissal last month as the Round Valley High School football coach. He has since accepted a teaching position in Queen Creek.
In addition to Round Valley as a tournament favorite, Tuba City could contend for the holiday crown.
"They are perennially a tough team," Huff said.
Another top contender could be the Flagstaff Sinagua Mustangs --urrently ranked No. 4 in the 4A conference.
For Payson, one of the keys to any success the team might enjoy during the two days of hardwood play is how well the squad's full court man-to-man pressure defense holds up.
If the players can turn up the defensive heat on their opponents and create turnovers, the Lady Horns could be a tournament contender.
When the press forces turnovers, the miscues must be turned into fast break layups and easy baskets.
In the Lady Longhorns (8-3) final tune-up before the Holiday Hoops, Dec. 19 in Apache Junction, the team struggled late in the game to get its offense and defense untracked.
By controlling the tempo most of the first half, the Lady Horns were able to build a 26-22 halftime lead. But in the third quarter, Apache Junction regrouped to take a 42-37 lead into the final eight minutes of play. The two teams battled on relatively even terms in the final going, but Payson was never able to overcome the lead the Prospectors had assumed in the third quarter.
Kody Kepp led the Lady Horns in scoring with 10 points. Point guard Haylee Huff finished with 10 and Autumn Herrera tallied eight. Krystal McRae (seven), Danielle O'Haver (six), Kendra Francis (three) and Britney Owens (three) also scored.