The Longhorn boys basketball team will enter the regular season-ending Grand Canyon Region tournament Feb. 8 with confidence.
The team earned that confidence Jan. 15 in Wilson Dome, when it gave state No. 3 ranked Page (15-3) all the competition it could handle before falling 35-32.
The Sand Devils, who are led by 6-foot 10-inch center James Anderson, entered the game fresh off convincing GCR wins over Coconino and Mingus.
As the only GCR team ranked among the state's top 10, Page is the favorite to win the region title and also projected to contend for the 4A state championship.
Against Payson, however, Page's lofty ranking and the impressive record didn't deter Longhorn hopes.
In the low-scoring affair, Page took an early 13-12 lead and upped it to 23-21 at halftime.
Early in the fourth quarter, Page enjoyed its largest lead of the game 30-25.
In that final stanza, the determined Longhorn defense shut down the Sand Devils from the field. The only points Page scored were on five free throws.
As good as the Payson defense was, the offense couldn't complement the effort with any type of attack.
"We just couldn't score," coach Mike Loutzenheiser said. "We played them tough but to win you have to score."
The only points Payson posted in the final going was Donnie Wilbanks' three pointer and two field goals from Andy Sargent.
With 11 points, Sargent finished as the Horns leading scorer. Wilbanks had eight and Darren Daniels contributed five.
The Longhorn defense held the highly acclaimed Anderson to 14 points. By surrounding Anderson every time he touched the ball down low, the Horns didn't allow him to use his height and reach for easy baskets. Much of his scoring effectiveness came on offensive rebounds.
Loutzenheiser noted a huge difference in the game occurred at the free-throw line where Payson made good on its three attempts.
While the Horns were almost shut out at the line, Page went to the charity stripe on 15 occasions and made seven.
Also, the Horns were whistled for 13 fouls and Page ticketed for eight.
As lopsided as the foul situation was, Loutzenheiser refused to cite it has a reason for the narrow loss.
Instead, he cited the team's lack of offense as the culprit in the defeat.
"If we could have scored, especially in the third quarter when we had only four points, we could have won," he said.
Mustangs run wild
In a 68-51 regional loss to Sinagua Jan. 10 in Wilson Dome, the Horns received 21 points from Daniels but little productivity from the remainder of the lineup.
Wilbanks finished with 10 and Brandon Buckner had eight. Andy Sargent and Kyle Pugle finished with three each.
Entering the game, Loutzenheiser said Sinagua might be the Horns' best opportunity to pick up their first region win of the season. But after a slow start in which Payson was outscored 11-4, the Horns could never battle back into contention.
Even a 26-point fourth quarter, one of the Horns most prolific scoring stanzas of the year, wasn't enough to get Payson over the hump.
The Horns return to action Friday in Flagstaff and host Flagstaff Jan. 25 in Wilson Dome. Game times are 7 p.m.