The Lady Longhorns' (11-4) greatest accomplishment during the 16-team Holiday Hoops Invitational Basketball Tournament wasn't their 3-1 record and runner-up finish.
Rather, it was the team's 57-54 semifinal victory over Class 4A No. 4 ranked Flagstaff Sinagua. By whipping Sinagua, which is a member of the same Grand Canyon region as Payson, the Lady Horns became a legitimate contender in the 4A regular season title chase.
"The girls really stepped of their level of play and made it known they are a team to be reckoned with," first-year coach Rory Huff said.
The coach said the game was their biggest win of the year.
Prior to the victory over Sinagua, opposing Grand Canyon coaches and players might have considered the Lady Longhorns an also-ran in the battle for regional honors and a berth in the state tournament. That's because Payson High is a first-year member of the 4A conference where an air of superiority often exists when it comes to the small-town 3A ranks.
After corralling the Mustangs on the second day (Dec. 30) of the Hoops affair, the Lady Horns advanced to the tournament championship, only to be thumped 50-38 by powerful Tuba City.
On the opening day of the invitational (Dec. 29), Payson blasted Fountain Hills 63-25 and plowed past Many Farms 59-38.
In the championship showdown, the Lady Horns might have staked claim to the invitational championship had it not been for a dismal fourth-quarter showing in which the Tuba City Warriors outscored Payson 21-5. Entering the final eight minutes of play, the Lady Horns were clinging to a 33-29 lead.
In Tuba's late rally, the Warriors were almost perfect from the free throw line, sinking 10 of 11 charity attempts.
For the game, Tuba City was 17-of-21 from the line. Payson finished 3-for-10.
Although the Warriors shot 11 more free throws, Tuba City was whistled for more fouls than the Lady Horns. The Warriors were ticketed 17 times and Payson 15. That means the Lady Horn fouls were committed when the Warriors were in the act of shooting.
In the Lady Horns' offensive attack, only Kodi Kepp (11 points) scored in double figures.
Following the championship clash, coaches selected Kepp, and teammate Krystal McRae, to the 12-player all-tournament team. Against Tuba City, McRae was held to two points, but did a good job of rebounding and playing defense, Huff said.
Also in the gold-medal showdown, Britney Owens tallied eight points and point guard Haylee Huff finished with seven. Junior guard Tanya Davis tallied four.
The hard-fought victory over Sinagua was "by far the best game of the tournament," coach Huff said.
In the nip-and-tuck affair, the Mustangs jumped to an early 16-13 lead. At halftime, Sinagua led 34-32. The seesaw dogfight continued into the final eight minutes with the Mustangs leading 48-47.
Danielle O'Haver's five fourth quarter points, which included a crucial three-point bomb, helped the Lady Horns erase the one-point deficit and roll to the upset. With 14 points, McRae paced the Lady Horn offense. Davis and Kepp tallied 10 points each.
O'Haver, who gave the Lady Horns a long-range shooting threat, finished with eight points.
The Lady Horns' 38-point shellacking of Fountain Hills was decided early in the game when Payson ran out to a 21-6 lead.
At halftime, Payson assumed a commanding 42-12 lead to erase any doubt spectators might have about which team would emerge victorious.
The blowout allowed coach Huff to give extensive playing time to his entire roster of 10 players. Autumn Herrera led all scorers with 11 points. McRae finished with eight.
Kendra Francis, Tracy Fitzpatrick and Owens tallied seven each. Every team member scored at least two points.
The 21-point victory over Many Farms was another example of a well-rounded scoring attack in which nine of the 10 Payson players scored.
Kepp finished with 13 to lead the Payson effort. McRae contributed 10 and Herrera had nine. Haylee Huff chipped in with eight.
Defending 3A state champion Round Valley was the pre-tournament favorite to win the Holiday Hoops crown. But after a disappointing loss to Mesa Westwood, the Lady Elks finished 3-1 and the consolation bracket champion.
Following the two days of almost non-stop hardwood action, tournament director Teddy Pettet said the invitational was a success.
"Everything went extremely well," he said. "There were a lot of close games, three of them went into overtime."
The gate receipts of more than $2,000 is a Holiday Hoops record. All proceeds from the fray benefit the entire Lady Longhorn basketball program.