Junior forward Robert Walker's 35-point outburst and all-around, unselfish team play propelled the Longhorns to a 78-57 win over the Chinle Wildcats.
In the non-region clash played Dec. 16 in the Wildcats' newly built basketball arena, Walker opened on a tear, scoring 19 first-quarter points that lifted the Horns to an early 28-13 lead.
In addition to thriving on Walker's offense, which included 15-of-19 shooting from the field and four three-pointers, the Horns flourished under the floor generalship of guards Bryson Addington and Miles Huff who combined for 20 of the team's 26 assists.
"We shared the ball really well," coach Chuck Hardt said.
The fact that Addington and Huff clicked on the floor should not come as a surprise to anyone. The duo has shared back court duties since they were seventh-graders at Rim Country Middle School and are adept at knowing what each other is thinking and capable of executing.
Offensively, Addington also contributed 12 points and Huff finished with eight. While guards don't often lead the team in rebounds -- especially when the team has a 6-foot-8-inch center as Payson does -- the pair also paced the Horns on the board with six retrieves each.
Of the Longhorns' 29 rebounds, however, only seven came on the offensive end, prompting Hardt to declare that much of the upcoming holiday practice time will be devoted to improving opportunities for second shots and put-backs.
"It's something we need to work on during the eight practices we have from now until the (region) season opens (Jan. 3 in Holbrook)," he said.
If there is another facet of the game that furrows Hardt's brow, it is turnovers.
"We committed 21, that's too many," he said. "We'll also work on that."
The turnover problem first raised its ugly head last season when the Horns often tossed the ball away before attempting a shot.
Against Chinle, however, the Horns had the 26 assists to help offset the adverse effects of the miscues.
After the Horns jumped out to the early 15-point lead over Chinle, the Cats clawed back to within six during a second-quarter rally. PHS responded by outscoring Chinle 17-12 and 21-19 in the third and fourth quarters respectively.
Junior guard Levi Neal tallied 11 points, Oliver Lewinson had six and Hunter Hardt four.
As a team, Payson shot 58 percent from the field and were 5-of-6 from the line.
"We didn't draw many fouls because we were able to get out in the transition game, which they had trouble defending," Hardt said.
With the win, the Horns improve their overall record to 9-3, but the team has yet to play an East region game.
That situation will remedy itself following the showdown in Holbrook. In the course of a month, the Horns will play 12 East games. The results of those clashes will be used to seed PHS into a regional tournament to be played Feb. 9 and 10 in Snowflake.
However, coaches traditionally heed a word of caution during the East stretch run, because it often turns jumbled due to cancellations caused by winter road closures and the rescheduling of games.
If Mother Nature decides to douse the Rim Country with snow, Payson and the other East teams, could find themselves playing three -- or possibly four -- rescheduled games in the course of a week.
That takes a toll on both players and coaches, which can result in upsets of road weary, tired teams.