The Lady Longhorn basketball team takes a 17-10 record and a regional fourth-place finish into the Grand Canyon tournament when it opens at 7 p.m. this evening (Tuesday) in Wilson Dome.
Payson's first-round opponent, Flagstaff Coconino, enters the postseason tournament as the region's fifth-place finisher.
The Lady Horns were expected to struggle this season mostly because they were aligned in a new conference, had a first-year head coach and were without the two leading scorers from last year.
But as the season wore on, coach Rory Huff and his charges consistently proved they had the talent and the drive to compete in the big school 4A conference.
Although the Lady Horns have fared well, the big test for the team will come tonight against Coconino. A loss tonight would end the season and the Cinderella dreams of the players.
But, if Payson can slip past the Panthers, the team would earn a berth in the regional second round Feb. 13 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
If that scenario unfolds, Payson's likely opponent would be Grand Canyon champion Flagstaff Sinagua. A win over the Mustangs would propel Payson into the regional championship game the following day at NAU.
If the Lady Horns lose to Sinagua, they would play Feb. 14 for third place and the right to advance to the state tournament. The Grand Canyon region will send three teams to the state tournament Feb. 16.
Tonight's hardwood skirmish against Coconino will mark the third time this season the two teams have met.
On Jan. 6 in Wilson Dome, the Lady Horns corralled the Mustangs to the tune of 80-43.
In the second meeting three weeks later, Payson won 61-47.
In both showdowns, Payson survived in part because its defense was able to keep the Panther's leading scorer Charmane Johnson in check.
The task of containing the talented Panther sharpshooter will again fall upon the shoulders of the Lady Horn defense.
The Lady Horns wrapped up the regular season Feb. 5 with a 67-44 loss to Sinagua.
In three meetings between Payson and Sinagua this year, the Lady Horns are 1-2. The Lady Horns lone win was recorded in the semifinals of the Holiday Hoops tournament Dec. 29 and 30 in Wilson Dome.
In the most recent loss to Sinagua, the Lady Horns looked sharp early, building a 34-30 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, however, Sinagua's full court pressure defense that featured two players doubling the ball and a three-man front took its toll on Payson.
The gimmick defense held the Lady Horns to 10 points in the entire second half. The mark was a season low for the Payson offense.
Krystal McRae led the Lady Horns with 11 points most of which were scored in transition.
"She runs the floor well," Huff said.
Center/forward Kodi Kepp pounded her way inside for eight points.
In a 63-17 pounding of Mingus Feb. 4 in Wilson Dome, McRae and Kepp again teamed up the lead the Lady Horn offense. Kepp scored 14 points and McRae finished with 13.
The game turned into a blow out early when the Lady Horns jumped out to an 18-2 lead. Huff substituted at will as the Lady Horns methodically rolled to the easy win.