Back-to-back trips to the 3A state tournament boys finals had the Longhorns — at the onset of the prep basketball season — yearning for another shot at the title.
But, there won’t be a third try.
That chance was whisked away Feb. 27 in Chinle where the Wildcats put an end to Longhorn hopes and dreams with a 67-57 victory.
Had Payson won, the team would have advanced to the state tournament semifinals at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale. That honor now goes to the Wildcats who will take on Winslow in a March 6 semifinal game.
In the other semifinal, defending state champion Estrella Foothills will play Safford.
Winslow advanced to the final four with a 55-54 win over Window Rock. Estrella stayed alive with a 90-68 win over Fountain Hills and Safford ran roughshod over Chino Valley, 61-43.
Payson’s season ends with a 19-11 record and both the East Region regular season and tournament championships in tow.
Sure to follow are individual honors in the naming of the All-East Region team, as chosen by coaches. Those selected will be announced later this week.
Because Payson dominated regular season East play, losing only to Snowflake and later avenging that defeat, the Horns should have several players chosen.
Against Chinle, the Horns were haunted by a nemesis that has followed them all season long — turnovers.
Committing 21 miscues — 12 by the team’s two point guards — was too much of a handicap for the Horns to overcome.
Also contributing to the team’s demise was less than stellar defense.
“We played terrible defense the entire game,” coach Kenny Hayes said.
Ironically, Hayes has preached rock-solid defense, usually man-to-man, since he first joined the Longhorn staff four years ago as a freshman coach.
The Horns, who were playing in front of about 5,000 Navajo Nation fans in Chinle’s Wildcat Den, never got untracked in the first half falling behind 19-13 in the first quarter and 35-24 at halftime.
In the low scoring third quarter, the Cats outscored Payson 8-7.
The Longhorns finally got untracked in the final stanza with 24 points, but it was a case of too little, too late.
For Payson, Cody York finished with 23 points playing in his first game after setting a school record of eight three-pointers.
Against Chinle, he was 3-of-9 from three-point land.
Dakota Marshall finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, while Matt Wilson had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Although the Longhorn season is over, the team will gather one final time for the traditional awards ceremony. The date and place will be announced later this week.