Playing 11 games in 12 days earned the Payson High School boys basketball team a well-earned day of respite.
Dec. 12, coach Chuck Hardt did not drill the players, asking them instead to return the following day refreshed and ready for a full week of practice.
"This was recovery week, there are no games," Hardt said.
The team returns to action Dec. 19 against Chinle and will then take a break from play until Jan. 4 when the Horns open the East region campaign against Holbrook in Wilson dome.
During the month that follows, the Horns face 11 crucial East games the results of which will determine Payson's state tournament fate.
To advance to the 3A state showdown, set to begin Feb. 15 in the Northern Arizona University Skydome, the Horns must finish among the top four in the final region standings.
In the first round of the 2005-2006 state tournament, East qualifiers are paired against those from the South. Opening round play pits No. 1 against No. 4 and No. 2 takes on No. 3.
The state championship will be decided Feb. 25 in Glendale Arena.
Based on early season results around the region, the Horns appear well-armed to earn a state playoff berth, if not the East title, in a region coaches and fans say might not be as competitive as in past years.
During the 11-game run, the Longhorns compiled a 6-5 record and now stand 6-6 overall.
Probably the most memorable game the Horns played during the early season stretch was the consolation championship of the Pepsi Cola Shoot-Out Dec. 8, 9 and 10 in Flagstaff.
Pitted against Tucson Sabino on the shoot-out's final day, the Horns fell 51-50 on a tip in at the final buzzer.
"Sabino had the ball out of bounds under their own basket, with five seconds left, and we had two fouls to give," Hardt said. "But we let the ball (be passed) in and let them dribble two or three times without fouling before the tip in."
As tough as the loss was to absorb, the players might take solace in that they pushed Sabino, a 4A Division 1 with an 8-1 record, to the brink.
Against Sabino, the Horns shot 51 percent from the field and held the Tucson school to a 46 percent mark.
Brandon Buckner led the team in scoring with 15 points and earned Hardt's praise for his work ethic down low. "He worked hard around the boards," the coach said.
Junior guard Miles Huff turned sharpshooter, hitting seven of 10 shots from the field.
"He also took the ball to the basket well," Hardt said.
Senior forward Brian Schwind, normally a low post stalwart, played the role of floor general, dishing out six of the team's 15 assists
Although Hardt was generally pleased with the team's play, he is pushing the players to be more aggressive offensively.
"We didn't take the ball to the hoop or go inside near enough," Hardt said.
The choice to rely on jump shooting rather than a mad-dog style resulted in Payson being awarded only eight free throw attempts. The Horns misfired on all but three of those shots.
After watching his team start strong on defense, then fade, Hardt has stressed -- during the practice week -- improving the defense.
"The team D was good early, but we gave up too many easy (baskets) in the paint as the game wore on," he said.
In other shoot-out games, Payson fell to Sinagua 65-51 in the opener but rebounded to whip Chinle, 60-42, and Coconino 53-50.
Mustangs run wild; Wildcats, Panthers caged
Sinagua (9-1) entered the clash against Payson as the No. 1 ranked Class 4A Division II team.
The Horns, who were coming off a 65-50 loss to Fountain Hills the evening before, struggled throughout the game.
"The kids played uninspired ball and we had too many turnovers (24)," Hardt said.
Although, the Horns trailed only 33-31 at halftime and 49-43 at the start of the third quarter, they were outscored 15-8 in the final stanza.
Brian Schwind led the team in scoring with 12 points. Bryson Addington finished with 10.
The day following the lackluster loss, the Horns returned to the tournament to ride a well-rounded scoring effort and good rebounding to an 18-point win over Chinle.
Payson, dominated on the boards, out-rebounding the Cats 36-26. Offensively Brian Schwind and Robert Neuman led all scorers, with 10 points each.
Huff, a guard who has long rebounded as if he were playing power forward, paced the team on the boards with five retrieves. His well-rounded effort also included eight points.
For the first time this season, the Horns played without 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Ollie Lewinson, who began a 30-day vacation to India, Hardt said.
On the morning of the final day of the shoot-out, Payson advanced to the consolation championship against Sabino by whipping Coconino.
The victory, Hardt said, "was our best win of the season."
Schwind led all scorers, with 15 points, Buckner had 10 and Huff and Neuman contributed seven each.
In hitting 18 of 24 free throws, the team was led at the stripe by Buckner and Carlos Lopez who were both four-for-four.
A pair of Buckner's free throws came in the final seconds and helped Payson ice the game.
In addition to the Horns thriving on good free throw shooting, players handled the ball well, committing only 12 turnovers in a fast-paced game.