After sinking to a 0-6 start against some of the state's finest teams, the once-listing Longhorn boys basketball ship might have righted itself on the banks of the Colorado River.
The possible turnaround was chalked up at the Mohave Matador Invitational Tournament Dec. 20 to 22 near Laughlin, Nev. There, the Horns broke into the win column with a 2-2 tournament record.
Payson opened with a solid showing in a 66-49 loss to Class 5A No. 2 ranked and unbeaten Mesa Mountain View.
"We played them about as well as anyone in the tournament," PHS coach Mike Loutzenheiser said.
Buoyed by the new confidence of playing well against one of the best prep basketball programs in the state, the Horns recorded their first win of the season, 59-50, over St. Francis Academy of Canada.
The Horns whipped host Mohave 54-49 the following day.
With a 2-1 record, the Horns advanced to the consolation championship against Yuma Cibola. Although Payson led 20-17 at halftime and trailed only 26-25 early in the fourth quarter, the Horns came up short, 40-35, of a win.
A key to the Cibola victory was its free-throw shooting during the final quarter. During the crucial 12-minute span, the Yuma team cashed in on eight-of-12 attempts; the Horns were three-of-five.
Although the Longhorns outscored Cibola 7-6 from the field in the last stanza, Yuma's free throws proved to be the winning margin.
For Payson, Donnie Wilbanks and Andy Sargent finished with 10 points each. Darren Daniels had six and Bryson Addington four.
In the win over Mohave, Wilbanks turned in his best offensive performance of the season tallying a game-high 20 points. Most importantly, during the final stanza when Mohave was trying to erase Payson's 42-40 lead, Wilbanks went on a tear from the free-throw line hitting eight of eight attempts. For the game, he was 10 of 11 from the line missing only the first free throw he attempted. Daniels contributed 15 points and Brian Schwind had 11.
The shooting accuracy Wilbanks showed against Mohave was mirrored by Daniels in the Horns' triumph over St. Francis. Daniels finished with a game-high 23 points that included six-for-six free throw shooting and a trio of three-point bombs.
"That was his best game," said Loutzenheiser of Daniels.
If Wilbanks and Daniels continue to improve, the Horns could have the offense it takes to make noise in the upcoming Grand Canyon Region title chase.
In the Mohave tournament opener against the powerful Toros, the pesky Longhorns trailed 16-12 early and 38-24 at halftime.
Loutzenheiser said he was proud of his team's effort against a team that is expected to contend for the 5A state championship.
For Payson, Schwind had 11 points and Daniels and Wilbanks contributed 10 each.