Showdown: No.1- And No. 3-Ranked Teams Face-Off Saturday

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When state third-ranked Payson squares off tomorrow, Saturday, against top-rated Estrella Foothills, the attention of Arizona's prep basketball world will be focused on Wilson Dome.

The overwhelming interest in the game, which tips off at 7:30 p.m., is the result of the accomplishments and make up of both teams.

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Longhorn boys basketball coach Kenny Hayes discusses strategy with his team during a time out. Hayes and his charges will play host tomorrow, Saturday, to state No. 1-ranked Estrella Foothills. Game time is 7:30 p.m. in Wilson Dome.

High-powered Estrella enters the showdown 22-1 having lost only to McClymonds High School of Oakland, California by an 82-79 measure.

That loss was incurred during a Christmas tournament in California.

Payson is 17-5, the defending state runner-up and has played a demanding schedule against some of the state's finest team, including those from 4A and 5A ranks.

In most of the Wolves games this season, EH has rolled unchecked over foes winning by 30 to 40 points margins.

The team has also eclipsed 100 points several times, which is a head turning accomplishment in 3A high school basketball.

Against Phoenix South Pointe Jan. 12, Estrella won 102-37. EF also beat Red Rock Sedona 102-55 and Northwest Christian 101-64.

The Wolves lopsided wins have fans from around the state questioning, on web sites and smack boards, whether the team is running up the score on befuddled opponents.

Rendering the Wolves even more intriguing than the victory margins, is the presence of Brandon and Corey Hawkins. The two are the sons of former NBA All-Pro Hersey Hawkins.

During his 13-year career in the NBA, Hawkins -- a shooting guard -- played for four teams and was at one time a teammate of Charles Barkley on the Philadelphia 76ers.

For the past two seasons, Hawkins has worked as an assistant to EF head coach Ty Amundsen.

The presences of a former NBA player on the coaching staff and his two talented sons on the Wolves roster, has brought the EF team statewide publicity.

Brandon, a senior, and Corey, a sophomore, are living up to the advance hype they are receiving. Brandon is leading the West region in scoring with a 24 ppg game average. Corey is shooting at a 21.3 ppg clip.

While both players' skills involve slashing drives to the basket, the two can also shoot the long ball.

Corey is sinking an average of about three three-pointers per game and Brandon hits about two of the super shots.

Scouting reports indicated Corey is also a decent rebounder corralling about 7.1-missed shots per game.

PHS coach Kenny Hayes, who has watched Estrella game films and compiled scouting reports, believes the two brothers, and their supporting cast, could be among the finest players the Horns will face this season.

"There good, but so is the rest of the team," he said.

If the Wolves have an anchor they are clanking this season it might be the team's surprising lackluster performance in last year's state tournament.

Estrella, the 2006-2007 West region champion buoyed by the Hawkins brothers, entered the postseason as the state championship favorite and a No. 1 seed.

But in the state quarterfinals, the Wolves were upset 68-65 by East region third place finisher Holbrook.

That loss sent shock waves through the crowd at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff where the first two rounds of the state tournament were being played.

In the stands, some EF fans and parents -- thinking the Wolves were a lock for a championship game appearance --ere making plans to travel to Phoenix's Jobing.com Arena for the final four.

With the loss to Holbrook, those plans were canceled quickly.

Horns have their fans, too

Lending credence to the tenacity of tomorrow's clash is Payson's reputation as one of the few teams in the state that might have the firepower and talent to derail the Wolves express.

The confidence shown the Longhorns is due in part to the huge height advantage PHS holds over Estrella.

With 6-foot, 8-inch Oliver Lewinson, 6-foot, 6-inch Matt Wilson, 6-foot, 4-inch Tyler Savage and 6-foot, 3-inch Rob Walker on the Horn roster, Payson features the tallest overall team in the 3A conference.

The presence of the big four on the Horns front line has helped Payson dominate on the boards. In fact, four of the top five rebounders in the East region are from Payson.

In addition to PHS countering the Wolves with a height advantage, the Horns have two offensive threats, Robert Walker and Levi Neal, who can light up the scoreboard. Walker leads the team in scoring with a 12.3 ppg average. Neal is scoring 11.3 ppg.

Although, Walker is the team's three-point threat, Horn strategy has been to pound the ball inside rather than throw up shots from outside the arc.

While offense is the object of most fans' attention, it is defense that first-year varsity head coach Kenny Hayes has stressed most of the season.

The coach seldom employs zone or gimmick defenses opting instead to call upon his charges to play solid man-to-man defense.

The key to Payson beating EH will be to find the athletes with the speed, quickness and determination to slow the Hawkins brothers.

While that might not be possible one-on-one, the Horns can call upon help defense, especially from Wilson down low, to stop the easy lay ups and drives to the hoop.

If the Horns have an edge, it might be in their chemistry. The senior members of the team have been together since they were freshmen on a 16-4 team.

Hayes coached that rookie crew and has moved up with the players as they have gone from freshmen, to junior varsity to varsity.

Assistant coach Josh Anderson sees a rare bond between the coach and players.

"They really trust him," he said.

East chase a priority

As much attention as the Horns vs. Wolves game has drawn, its outcome means very little to the Longhorns.

Because it is a non-region game, the results count only in the overall record and not the all-important region standings.

Region results are the only statistics used in determining the East champion and seeding teams to state.

As important as the EH clash might appear in teens' eyes, the Horns players should probably be more focused on beating Round Valley this evening, Friday, in Wilson Dome, rather than mulling over the Wolves.

A win over RV would keep the Horns unbeaten in the East, atop the region standings and on track for a No. 1 seed into the postseason. But in taking on Estrella, team, pride and bragging rights as the state's finest 3A team will be at stake.

Those are two very powerful forces.

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