Among the finest tributes doled out to the Longhorn basketball team following a 62-55 loss to state No. 1 ranked Chandler Seton Catholic came from Chinle Wildcat fans.
The Wildcat faithful were in the Northern Arizona University Skydome awaiting a Chinle state tournament game as the Horn players walked off the court following the heartbreaking loss.
"They gave us an ovation. It was a tribute to the kids' effort," coach Hardt said.
Junior Carlos Lopez was among those players moved by the show of appreciation.
"This one lady from Chinle came up to me and said what a great game we had played," he said. "She said if we would have just had a little more time, we probably would have caught them."
What renders the tribute even more meaningful is that last year, when the Wildcats and Payson were rival members of the Class 4A Grand Canyon region, the two schools locked horns in two spirited and heated clashes on both the junior varsity and varsity level.
Any animosity generated in those toe-to-toe battles apparently didn't carry over to this season.
Any Chinle follower who arrived at the Skydome early enough to see the entire second half of the Horns vs. Seton Class 3A state opening round skirmish were treated to one of the finest halves of basketball in the Payson High School hardwood annals.
Trailing 39-16 at halftime, the Horns returned from the locker room with a vengeance.
"The extent of coaching (at halftime) was I just told the players we were going to get in Seton's face full court and play until their tongues were hanging out," Hardt said. "I said, if someone got tired, I'd pull them out and put another player in."
The Longhorns responded to the challenge by outscoring powerful Seton 16-8 in the third quarter to close the Sentinel lead to 47-32.
The Payson rally continued throughout the fourth quarter in which the Horns outscored Seton by a 23-15 margin.
The key to the amazing rally was the Horns' breakneck, aggressive style of play.
"In the first half we were too soft defensively and then we went full court (press) and put our body on them when they got in the lane," Hardt sad. "We gave them no easy looks in the half court."
The Horns up-tempo defensive effort carried over to the offensive end of the floor.
"We started attacking the rim," Hardt said. "Brandon (Buckner) went strong to the basket and Miles Huff made some good decisions in the comeback."
Buckner's determined dribble drives to the hoop earned him eight free throw attempts of which he made good on seven.
Another catalyst in rally came from one of the most unlikely sources -- Lopez.
Most of the season, Lopez has been strangely silent offensively despite the fact he is one of the best, and most well conditioned, athletes on the team.
Entering the fourth quarter, Lopez had scored eight points -- seven more than his season's per game average.
But his showing in the first three quarters was only a hint of things to come.
In the fourth stanza, he turned in the finest performance of his three-year career at PHS, scoring nine points.
"Carlos went off, he brought lots of energy to the floor," Hardt said.
Lopez eventually finished with a game high of 17 points.
Joining Lopez in the incredible rally was senior forward/center Brian Schwind, who finished with 10 points that included six for six free throw shooting.
Junior Hunter Hardt contributed five points and two steals in the Longhorn's late comeback.
Robert Neumann and Huff also finished with five points each.
Following the defeat, Hardt lauded the players, saying, "They never quit. I am very proud of them, especially the seniors."
The loss wrapped up the season for Payson with a 16-14 record and a fourth place East region finish.
The players will gather a final time at 6 p.m. March 9 in the Payson Elementary School cafeteria for the annual awards ceremony.
During it, Hardt will announce the players selected for All-East Region honors and any seniors chosen to participate in the Arizona Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star Game to be played in June.
Those all-stars will be selected in a voting of ACA members March 5 at Mesa Dobson High School.