There’s a scene in “The Last Samurai” where Tom Cruise wins a painful moral victory because he just won’t stay down as some black belt tough guy beats him bloody.
Well, that sums up the Payson Longhorns’ adventure among the 4A and 5A teams drawn to the three-day basketball tournament in Prescott.
So far, they’ve been beat bloody: But they keep getting up.
The Longhorns lost three games in a row to tough teams from much bigger schools — but despite the pummeling, the boys improved so much from game to game that the tournament could turn into some sort of perverse confidence builder.
The tournament losses included Monday’s 65 to 30 mauling by Cimarron, a 5A Las Vegas school followed by a more respectable 48 to 35 loss to 4A Bradshaw High School, the host-school for the 18-team tournament.
Coach Bill Goodwin said that after those losses, he challenged the four seniors in the starting lineup not to squander their final season. They responded with a gritty effort against Notre Dame, which Goodwin praised as the team’s best game of the year, despite the 71 to 62 final score.
“I didn’t let them get discouraged,” said Goodwin.
“I had to kind of be a wild man on the sideline. If that’s what it takes, that’s OK. We started four seniors ... told them their clock is running out and graduation is right around the corner and they don’t want to go out with a losing season. They responded. Started us off really well and provided a great team effort.”
The star of the turnaround proved to be senior and team co-captain Justin Moratti, who broke into the double-digits for the first time this year with a team-high score of 17.
“He has struggled with his shooting, but he really responded — he caught fire,” said Goodwin.
Coming on top of two losses going into the tournament, the drubbings have dropped the Longhorns’ record to 4 wins and 9 losses. Fortunately, only one of those losses came in league play — a galling loss to rival Show Low.
As a result, Goodwin maintains the team can still mount a winning league season if the sputtering offense can come up to the level of the so far respectable defense.
The sting of the three tournament losses so far this week was eased only a little by the lopsided size of the schools involve. Among the 18 tournament teams, Payson was one of only three, small 3A schools. Most of the tournament schools were at least 4A, with several 5A heavyweights thrown in.
However, the tournament may also offer a sobering foretaste of next season — when a reorganization of the league will dump Payson in a shark tank full of 4A schools for its regular league play.
“Our three losses in the tournament were all to much bigger schools, but that’s no excuse,” said Goodwin. “With the league realignment next year, these are teams we’re going to be playing with — so we’re going to have to find out if we’re in that league now.”
Only a few players turned in strong offensive performances in the mostly lopsided tournament losses.
In the 30-65 Cimarron slaughter, only Tanner Hintze broke out of the single digits with 12 points. Three players each contributed four points — Josh Oakley, Russ Hintze and Moratti.
In the less discouraging loss to Bradshaw Mountain, no one scored in the double digits. The Hintze family contributed the biggest chunk of points — with sophomore Tanner Hintze matching his big brother Russ’ point total.
Goodwin said that after the Bradshaw loss, he and the team did some soul searching as he challenged the seniors to give it their all before the season slips away. The team responded with perhaps its strongest offensive performance of the season against the highly regarded 4A team.
Tanner Hintze had the second high score with 15 points, one basket behind Moratti — who even hit a rare three-pointer.
Sophomore Ron Picking contributed an impressive eight points in his first play on the varsity squad.
Goodwin is hoping that the intense, close-spaced games of the tournament will help the Longhorns gel, especially on offense.
“I think the losing is starting to hurt,” said Goodwin.
“That’s why I basically called them out —your clock is running out. So let’s start right now. Much more important than what the scoreboard says is what do we feel when we walk off that court — do we feel like a team? Do we feel like we’ve improved? I can honestly say that coming off the floor on this game, they all had a little pep in their step. We still have a lot of season left.”
The tournament will lead into a four-game string of home court games — all against league teams.
“Those are the ones that count. All these games now are just to prepare us for January. We’re still looking at what works the best for us. We have played a little more zone — half-court trap with full-court press. The basic defense is going to be man-to-man. That’s still our bread and butter. But we have a long way to go offensively. I’ll be happy with whatever that scoreboard says, so long as we play to our potential.”