The state title game began auspiciously enough for Payson -- Oliver Lewinson slam dunked with 3:37 remaining in the first quarter and about a minute later, Cody York blocked a Corey Hawkins shot attempt.
But after the Horns (24-7) built a 10-7 first quarter lead, highly favored Estrella Foothills (31-2) roared back for a 64-51 victory.
The 3A championship game was played Saturday evening at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale.
Although the Longhorns turned in one of their better efforts of the season, it wasn't enough to slow the Wolves team that has dominated 3A competition all season long.
Prior to the championship game, Estrella had overwhelmed its three previous state tournament opponents by margins of 86-46 (Alchesay), 85-55 (Sedona Red Rock) and 92-53 (Chinle).
Earlier this season in Wilson Dome, the Wolves pounded Payson 73-45.
At the onset of the year, the Wolves took over the No. 1 rankings in every state poll and entered the postseason as the top seeded champion of the 3A West division.
With those types of winning credentials, the Wolves were highly favored to whip Payson in the gold medal showdown.
But just after tip off, which was about 40 minutes late due to an earlier state game that went into OT, the Horns showed they were not about to roll over and play dead.
Payson's stifling man-to-man defense, which has been a point of pride all season long for first year coach Kenny Hayes, kept the Wolves and their two stars Brandon and Corey Hawkins at bay.
In the first quarter, the normally high-powered Estrella offense made only two of 15 shot attempts.
The Wolves didn't lead until Sean Duncans hit a 3-pointer with 5:49 remaining in the second quarter to break a 10-10 dead knot.
At halftime, the Wolves was clinging to a precarious 21-18 lead.
With 6-foot-8-inch senior Ollie Lewinson playing about as well as he has all season, the Horns appeared to have a shot at a huge upset.
But those aspirations died slowly in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter when the Horns did not score and EF assumed a 45-33 lead.
The demise of the Horns can be partially attributed to their own foul trouble and commendable free-throw shooting by Estrella, especially from Brandon Hawkins.
EF made 32 of their 44 attempts, 22 of 26 by Hawkins.
While the Wolves were cashing in on the free shots, the Horns were being eliminated on fouls. In the fourth stanza, four Horns -- Shane Keith, Cody York, Anthony Pearce and Robert Walker -- fouled out.
Walker, a 6-foot-4-inch senior guard who led the team in scoring, remembers the final quarter well.
"I picked up my fourth foul in the third quarter and came out (of the game)," he said. "I went back in and I was trying to do a layup when I was called for an offensive foul."
Walker didn't argue the call that went against him but did say, "they (Estrella) didn't have one (player) foul out."
Hayes also refused to criticize the officiating, but it was obvious that Estrella had won the game at the free-throw line where the Wolves shot 13 more attempts than did Payson.
Of course, the Horns didn't help their own cause by making only 16 of their 31 tries.
"If we'd have made those (free throws) and more layups off our press breaker, we might have won it," Hayes said.
For Payson, Oliver Lewinson finished with a team-high 18 points. Brandon Hawkins led Estrella with 34 points.
The Hawkins brothers are the sons of former NBA player Hersey Hawkins, who is now an assistant on the EF team to head coach Ty Amundsen.
The game marked the culmination of the prep careers of five seniors -- Nick Herring, Levi Neal, Lewinson, Pearce and Walker.
Last season, all were members of the Longhorn hoop team that also finished as state runner-up, losing to Fountain Hills in the title game.
For Walker, the final two years in the PHS basketball program were bittersweet.
As a junior, he began the season on a hot streak, leading the Horns in scoring.
But in a freak accident while wrestling with a teammate, he broke his ankle and was sidelined for most of the year.
"It (sitting out) was really hard, especially in the championship game when there was nothing I could do to help," he said.
As a senior, he returned from the injury to lead the team to the East region championship and the state title game.
"We still didn't win the championship, but it was a great year," Walker said.
During the regular and postseason stretch run, Walker and his senior teammates led the Horns to a 15-2 record that included a nine-game winning streak.
The Horns' only two losses during the sprint to the finish were to Estrella Foothills.
The seniors and their underclassman teammates will gather one final time for the season-ending awards ceremony.
It is tentatively scheduled for 6:30 p.m., March 19, possibly at the Mazatzal Casino.
Also in the near future, the results of coaches' balloting to select the state all-tournament team members will be announced.