The Longhorn varsity basketball team took a good, old-fashioned beating Friday in a discouraging 62-36 loss to a big, athletic, tight-knit Fountain Hills team.
The one bright spot for the Longhorns was the standout performance of Russ Hintze, who came off the bench to score 14 points on offense and grab four rebounds and three steals on defense.
Coach Bill Goodwin said that hopefully the game will serve to focus the team on the need to practice as hard as they play.
“Hopefully, we learned that we need some practice time,” said Goodwin, noting that injuries, illness and finals had overshadowed practice sessions in the past few weeks.
“I truly believe that you play like you practice — and we need to practice harder,” said Goodwin.
To underscore the point, the team hit the gym first thing Saturday morning and will work out through the Christmas break — with a three-day tournament looming next week.
“Really, the key is to go hard in practice,” said Goodwin, who has broad coaching and playoff experience in other schools, but is still trying to build a winning team in his first year at Payson.
The loss to Fountain Hills on Friday was the second loss in a row and dropped the record for the season so far to four wins and six losses.
“Ballplayers want to play hard in the game and try to go 100 miles an hour. But if you’re not doing that in practice, you hit the wall.”
The Longhorns on Friday never worked out a solution to Fountain Hills’ huge advantage in height. While Fountain Hills had two players 6 feet, 8 inches tall, the tallest player on the Payson side was Tanner Hintze at 6 feet, 3 inches.
“We’re not a tall team, so we have to be in good condition, we have to run and that’s what we didn’t do on Friday. We didn’t make them play our tempo and that played into their hands with being much bigger.”
Although the Longhorns amassed a respectable number of steals, they couldn’t set up and move back down court fast enough to turn many of those turnovers into scoring opportunities.
Unfortunately, Fountain Hills took far greater advantage of the Longhorns’ dispiriting 26 turnovers — a sharp increase over the average of the past several games, said Goodwin.
Given the Longhorns’ relatively short stature, their offense against bigger teams relies heavily on a tenacious defense that can force turnovers, which a sprint back down the court can convert into points before the tall guys on the opposing team can get back down the court and set up a wall in front of the basket.
“We want to key our offense off our defense — put pressure on the ball, pressure on the passer. We did have quite a few steals, but then you need to push the ball down the floor and get more shots in the paint. With two 6-foot-8-inch guys standing in the paint, you can’t do that playing half court, you have to beat them down the floor.”
And that tactic, in turn, relies on such relentless work in practice and conditioning that players can consistently outrun the other team, playing the game at a fast-break pace.
Instead, the still not-quite-jelled Payson team fell behind by 10 points almost immediately and never regained the initiative.
The Longhorns did give the spectators at the home game brief hope, when they closed to within one point at 13 — 12 at the end of the first quarter, but then they fell back to 31 to 21 at the half.
Unfortunately, the third quarter turned into a rout — with Fountain Hills outscoring the Longhorns 22 to 6. After that, the fourth quarter hardly mattered.
Russ Hintze scored nearly half of the Longhorns’ points. He hit five of his six shots from the free-throw line, a measure of how hard he pressed the Fountain Hills otherwise formidable defense. Hintze also led the team in rebounds — with four — and contributed three steals to the day’s effort.
Josh Oakley contributed nine points and three steals and Zack Blazer scored seven points.
Tanner Hintze abetted his brother’s offensive efforts with five steals.
Cole Belcher contributed two blocks while Sam Grassell pulled down four rebounds.
Goodwin said he hopes the lopsided loss will focus the young team on the need to practice much harder.
“Until we get everybody to practice and get them to 100 percent, roles are still being defined.
“Some guys have been dinged up from injuries. So the team is still being formed — but we’re starting to see some guys stand out in practice.”
The vigorous practice session this week will hopefully tune up the team for five or six games in a three-day stretch at a tournament in Prescott, starting on Monday.
Goodwin said he remains optimistic about the team’s prospects, with eager players with strong basic skills, still seeking their center of gravity.
“We’re definitely a running team — very strong on defense. We have some quick hitters and some good offense. But you’ve got to know when to walk up the court and when to run — like the song — you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. That’s what we’re learning to do.”
He said he has in the past coached teams that started out in the hole and ended up playing in the state championship and that they’re only about halfway through the 20-game season.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Goodwin.
And hopefully after Friday’s thrashing, another wise old saying will apply: “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”