The coach from Down Under has his team up above.
The lofty perch is because coach Jared Swanson’s Longhorns won six games in six days including the championship of the Cake Chevrolet Shoot Out contested Dec. 3 to Dec. 5 in Winslow.
The tournament victory was a first for Payson in the hardwood fray that was previously known as the Ames Ford Shoot Out.
Swanson, who previously played professional basketball in Australia, called earning the title “another great win for us, to cap off a great week of extremely hard work by our guys.”
Possibly the most startling win in the tournament was a 48-44 semifinal victory over Winslow — a team that on Nov. 24 in Bulldog land ran roughshod, 66-39, over the Horns.
The key to the stirring triumph was the Longhorns’ sticky defense.
“Our guys came prepared to play this time and us holding them to only 44 points really showed that,” Swanson said. “I am extremely proud of how our guys played defense.”
The victory, the coach added, “was a big confidence booster for our guys, especially after losing so badly to Winslow last week.”
For the tournament, the coach lauded the Longhorns’ three captains, seniors Ever Figueroa, Dakota Marshall and Cody Waterman, for their leadership.
“They really took charge on the court, which is something I expect them to do each game,” he said.
In the waning moments of the pulsating victory over the Dogs, the 6-foot-5-inch Marshall was nearly unstoppable scoring 10 fourth-quarter points including 6-for-6 free throw shooting.
Marshall finished with a team-high 18 points and was 10-for-12 from the line. He also used his height to corral 12 rebounds.
Waterman had nine points and four rebounds, Chamberlain Fitch contributed seven points and four rebounds and Figueroa chipped in with six points and six rebounds.
The seesaw game was one of the most evenly contested in the tournament, with neither team ever leading by more than four points.
At halftime the Horns led 18-15, but Winslow rallied to lead 31-30 at the onset of the fourth stanza.
Rising to the occasion, PHS outscored the Dogs 18-13 during the fourth period to salt away the triumph.
“Defense was the key to victory, we held the Bulldogs to well below their points per game average,” Swanson said. “This game also taught us that hard work on both ends of the court is what it takes to beat a good team.”
The win over Winslow catapulted the Longhorns into the championship game against East Region rival Blue Ridge.
Again Payson found themselves in a junkyard brawl, but this time against Yellow Jackets rather than Bulldogs.
After jumping out to a 20-7 early lead, Payson needed Figueroa’s last-second heroics to nail down the tournament triumph.
With fans on the edge of their seats and less than a minute remaining, the Horns led by three points, but Blue Ridge cashed in on a long three-pointer to tie the game at 44-44.
With the deadknot, Swanson called a time out to set up a last-minute strategy.
What happened next was the stuff of every young ball player’s dreams.
Figueroa took the in-bounds pass, paused to allow a few ticks of the clock to pass and then sped off on a dribble drive to the basket.
“He was able to get into the lane and make a 10-foot jump shot with only three seconds to play,” Swanson said.
Figueroa’s two points proved to be the winning margin when Blue Ridge turned the ensuing in-bounds pass over as time ran out.
Figueroa finished with 12 points, but Waterman led the team in scoring with 19 points, 14 of which came in the first quarter when he sank two three-pointers. Marshall tallied 11 and paced the Horns in rebounds with 11.
The Longhorns dominated on the boards, out-rebounding the Jackets 40-20.
The Horns, however, negated that advantage by committing five more turnovers (15 to 10) than did BR.
The win over the Jackets improved the Horns’ season record to 6-1, 0-0 in the East.
More tournament games
In other Cake Shoot Out clashes, the Longhorns dominated a pair of reservation-area teams whipping Ganado 62-52 and Hopi 63-38.
Against Hopi in the second game of the tournament, Waterman turned in perhaps his best offensive showing of his career tallying 29 points including hitting all 11 of his free throws.
Marshall again had a strong all-around showing with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Figueroa scored nine points and pounded the boards for five retrieves.
The win, Swanson said, “was the largest margin of victory we have seen this season.”
Early on, Payson left no doubt which was the superior team, bolting out to a 30-11 lead at halftime and then pushing it to 46-18 at the end of the third quarter.
The Payson defense held Hopi to four points in the first quarter and seven in the second and third stanzas.
Hopi rallied for 20 in the fourth frame, but by that time, Swanson had his reserves in the game.
“Many players got court time in the final quarter,” he said.
In the tournament-opening win over the Ganado Hornets, Marshall used his height to dominate inside, scoring 19 points and corralling 13 rebounds. Waterman was equally as effective with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The Horns took a 28-13 lead into the halftime locker room and looked to be breezing to an easy win over the Hornets.
“That was completely not the case as Ganado came out with a whole new mentality, which included being much more aggressive and getting to the foul line,” Swanson said.
The team’s newfound enthusiasm resulted in the Hornets outscoring PHS 21-12 in the third quarter.
Entering the final stanza, the Horns’ lead was reduced to 40-34.
Waterman, however, turned the tide scoring 10 points, including 6-for-6 from the line, in the final quarter to help stave off the rally.
“His defensive efforts were also impressive as he made a few steals and took the ball coast to coast for the score,” the coach said.
Behind Waterman, Payson outscored the Hornets 22-18 down the stretch to salvage the win.
Much of the credit for the victory should go to the Horns’ efforts on the boards. Payson out-rebounded the much shorter Hornets 42-13, but lost the turnover battle, 25-16.
Following the win, Swanson urged the team to concentrate on defense saying, “Our guys still have to know what it means to work hard on defense.
“Players can have all the offensive fire-power in the world, but if they cannot play defense, they’ll have a tough time winning against good teams.”
The Longhorns were scheduled to return to action last evening, Dec. 7 in Holbrook, but those games were postponed due to a snowstorm that was expected to make Rim Country roads unsafe for travel.
The games have been rescheduled for Jan. 2. Games planned in Show Low for Dec. 8 were in limbo at press time.