A flurry of nonregion games and two tournaments have set the stage for the Longhorns’ run at a third successive East region championship.
The chase begins Jan. 9 in Show Low where the state fourth-ranked Horns (7-7) take on the homestanding Cougars (4-9).
Following that clash, Payson plays nine East games, the results of which will decide the regular season region championship and seedings into the regional tournament to be held Feb. 9-13 in Whiteriver Alchesay.
The Longhorns tuned up for the all-important East campaign Dec. 29 and 30 at the Bradshaw Mountain Tournament, and Jan. 3 at Estrella Foothills.
In a 92-52 loss to Estrella — the 3A conference’s No. 1 ranked school and fifth ranked overall, regardless of school size classification — the Horns fell to the team that defeated them last year in the state championship game.
Estrella, a legitimate state powerhouse, also features Arizona State recruit Corey Hawkins who lit up the Horns for a game-high 31 points that included a whopping 17 trips to the free throw line. He also cashed in on five-of-eight three-point attempts. Horns’ hoop fortunes were a tad better at Bradshaw Mountain, where the team won its final two games of the Alvarez Tire Invitational Tournament, beating Marana 48-29 and Prescott 68-52.
Against Marana, the Horns jumped out to an early 14-8 lead, and expanded it to 30-15 at halftime.
The lead allowed coach Kenny Hayes to begin liberally substituting from his bench. In all, 10 players broke into the scoring column.
“We had a 10-man rotation going to give some (players) rest and also to find out who can play defense,” Hayes said.
Cody York, a senior returning starter from last year’s team, led all scorers with 13 points. He also finished with five rebounds and four steals.
Tyler Savage contributed eight points, six of which came from the charity stripe. Jeff Day finished with six points and seven rebounds.
If the Horns had a shortcoming in the game, it was ball security. The team committed 24 miscues, a mark that — if repeated — will surely put a crimp in any championship hopes the Longhorns have.
A day prior to whipping Marana — the Horns’ fourth tournament game in two days — Payson fired up a furious fourth-quarter rally to bounce the 4A Prescott Badgers.
Leading only 49-45 early in the fourth quarter, the Horns outscored the Badgers 19-7 in the final eight minutes.
The one-two punch of Ryan Hintze and Savage saved the day for the Horns.
Hintze finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a steal.
Savage scored 12 points, had two rebounds and a steal.
The key to the victory might have been the Horns’ dominance on the boards. By out rebounding the Badgers 43-14, Payson eliminated most of Prescott’s second-shot attempts and were able to throw the quick outlets to crank up their own running game.
With the East season just over the horizon, the Longhorns have three players among the individual region leaders.
Cody York is the East’s fourth-leading scorer with a 12.2 ppg average. Show Low’s Cameron Jacobs is the leading scorer with a 20.3 ppg average for the 4-9 Cougars.
York is also the fourth-ranked three-point shooter and is second in steals, averaging 2.8 per game.
Senior point guard Shane Keith is second in assists with an average of 3.8 per game.
Junior Cody Waterman has taken six charges and is second in the region behind Snowflake’s Blake Peterson (8).
If early season results are any indication of the region’s strength in the 3A conference, the East could be in for a down year.
In fact, no team in the East has a winning record, and only Payson’s mark is break even.
Blue Ridge has won only three games; Round Valley, Show Low and Alchesay have four “Ws” and Snowflake has posted five.