A pair of victories over Grand Canyon rivals Flagstaff Coconino Panthers and Chinle Wildcats have catapulted the Lady Longhorns back into the regional title chase.
After opening the Grand Canyon campaign Jan. 3 with a disheartening 56-23 loss in Page, the Lady Horns were in dire need of last week's victories over Coconino, 83-40, and Chinle, 50-33.
In defeating the Panthers Jan. 6 in Wilson Dome, the Lady Horns turned up the defensive heat on the Flagstaff visitors.
"Our full court pressure was too much for them," coach Rory Huff said.
With the Panthers struggling to get the ball up court, the Lady Horns were able to convert turnovers into fast break opportunities. No player took more advantage of Coconino miscues than did sophomore Tracy Fitzpatrick. In her first varsity starting assignment, Fitzpatrick scored a team-high 14 points and was a terror on the boards.
"She had double digit rebounds," Huff said.
In addition to Fitzpatrick's efforts, the Lady Horn cause received steady all-around performances from Tanya Davis, Krystal McRae, Danielle O'Haver and Kody Kepp.
Davis scored 12 points, McRae had 11 and O'Haver, Huff and Kepp contributed nine each.
"All our players scored," coach Huff said.
In Payson's Jan. 9 win over Chinle in Wilson Dome, the Lady Horns were forced to battle in an on-the-road, hostile atmosphere.
"It seemed like there were 700 Chinle fans and 200 from Payson," coach Huff said. "They brought the entire town."
In reservation towns like Chinle, basketball is a way of life for children and teenagers. When it's game time, almost everyone turns out to cheer on their players.
The visitors had plenty to cheer about early when Chinle jumped out to a 6-0 lead. Minutes later, the Lady Horns called upon a variety of defenses to pull themselves back into contention.
Showcasing man-to-man pressure, a 1-2-2 press and by denying the inbounds pass, the Lady Horns were able to completely shut down the Chinle offense.
The second half, The Wildcats scored only 10 points.
"We threw the kitchen sink at them defensively," Huff said.
Jayvees cage Panthers
In junior varsity action against Coconino, defense also played a huge role in Payson's 46-29 victory.
Following the win, coach Carol Hayes praised the defensive and rebounding efforts of Hillary Armenta, Nicole Robichaud, Tori Wilbanks and Jadyn Walden for the victory.
"They also made many hustle plays that led to easy baskets," Hayes said.
Wilbanks, a freshmen who last week was called up to the jayvee team, led all scorers with 11 points. Alesha Huddlestun finished with nine and Molly Agnes had eight. Walden contributed six in the Lady Horns well-balanced scoring attack.
Both the varsity and junior varsity teams return to action today (Tuesday) at Flagstaff Sinagua.
Although Sinagua is state fourth-ranked and one of the favorites to battle for the Grand Canyon regional title, the Payson girls have beaten the Flagstaff school.
In the semifinal round of the Holiday Hoops tournament played Dec. 29 and 30 in Wilson Dome, Payson edged Sinagua 57-54.
That Payson victory, however, is meaningless in the regional regular season standings.
For the Lady Horns to continue their quest of earning a region championship in the school's first year in the 4A ranks, a victory today is crucial.