Payson Longhorn basketball players weren't breathing any sighs of relief when state tournament pairings were announced Sunday.
The team's concerns centered on the opponent, Monument Valley, the Horns drew in the first round of the 3A tournament to be played 8:30 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, in Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Although No. 2 seeds -- as Payson is -- usually draw less formidable opponents in opening round play, MV is anything but a pushover.
Many in the northland are predicting MV will ultimately reach the final four and possibly make a run at the state championship.
Fan confidence is buoyed by the Kayenta team's performance during the regular season. Competing in possibly the toughest basketball region in the state -- the North -- MV posted an impressive 18-7 record. The Mustangs finished 11-2 and third in the North behind runner-up Winslow (12-2) and champion Window Rock (13-1).
Coach Elton Loy's charges play the traditional reservation-style run-and-gun basketball that often leaves opponents gasping for air.
But, playing that style of basketball shouldn't be a problem for the Longhorns who are accustomed to the running game, having battled Whiteriver Alchesay three times during the past season.
After splitting regular season games against the Falcons, the Horns lost the East region championship finale, 61 44, to Alchesay, Feb. 10 in Snowflake.
With Alchesay's win, the Falcons will take the East's top seed to the state tournament and will play North No. 4 Ganado at 1 p.m. tomorrow.
Also for the East, region bronze medalist Holbrook plays North No. 2 Winslow at 6:30 p.m. and the East's fourth and final seed, Snowflake, takes on North champion Window Rock at 9:30 p.m. All games are in the NAU skydome.
Lewinson, Huff lead
Payson will take to the state tournament its one-two punch of Oliver Lewinson and Miles Huff. Although, the duo struggled in the East region championship loss to Alchesay, the two have been the Horns' offensive leaders most of the season.
Lewinson represents the third-leading scorer and the top rebounder and shot blocker in the East.
His resounding dunks also often are the catalyst it takes to get fans up out of their seats and providing the vocal support the young players need.
In Payson's East region tournament semifinal 70-62 win Feb. 9 over Holbrook, the 6-foot-8-inch center/forward had two slams that had fans hootin' and a hollerin'.
Huff, who emulates Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash, is second in the region in assists. Defensively, he ranks third in steals.
Huff is also an accomplished rebounder who often sneaks in from his guard position to steal rebounds from taller opponents.
Lopez hopes to return
The Horns could be buoyed in the state tournament by the return of senior forward Carlos Lopez who has been sidelined with an ankle injury.
At the regional tournament, Lopez was anxious to return to play. "I'll be ready to go, I promise," he said.
If Lopez returns to the lineup as expected, he'll undoubtedly draw the defensive assignment on Monument Valley's best offensive player.
Lopez is the Horns' best defender who has helped Payson win several games by shutting down the opponent's top scoring threat.
If the Horns win the state opener, they will advance to a second round game to be played Feb. 16 against the winner of the Seton Catholic vs. Parker state opener. The time has yet to be determined.
A loss in the single elimination tournament will wrap up the season for the Longhorns.