SNOWFLAKE – A diving, scrambling, just-won’t-quit Payson Longhorns girls basketball team scored the triumph of the season Wednesday by upsetting Snowflake to advance in the tough Division III state tournament.
The No. 18-seeded Payson team won 45-41 in overtime against the No. 15 Lobos with a gutsy performance that marks the first time in five years the Longhorns girls team has made it past the first playoff game.
The win sets up Saturday’s daunting face-off with Winslow, a frequent champion now ranked No. 2 in the state. The Longhorns lost two regular-season games to Winslow, but have mounted a late-season winning streak with such heart and persistence that even an upset of that magnitude no longer seems impossible.
But no matter what happens next, Wednesday’s triumph marks the first time since the seniors on this squad were seventh-graders that PHS has won a state tournament game. The Longhorns’ last state playoff victory was a 35-33 win over Tuba City at Payson in 2009. In their next game, the No. 3 Longhorns lost 47-46 to No. 6 Monument Valley, the eventual champion.
Last year, the No. 20-seeded Longhorns lost 52-46 at No. 13 Chinle in the opening round after failing to qualify at all in the previous three seasons.
“It’s a big win,” said PHS coach Jennifer White, whose Longhorns improved to 13-16. “In the last two years I’ve been head coach, we’ve come to state but always stopped. So it’s a step in the right direction for our program. Any time you advance in the state playoffs, it’s something exciting for our girls.”
Payson faces defending state champion Winslow (22-4) in a second-round game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Chinle. Winslow is the state’s premier Division III/Class 3A girls basketball program. The Bulldogs have reached the championship game 17 times in the last 25 years, winning eight titles and finishing second nine times. Winslow has appeared in eight of the last 10 championship games, winning five crowns.
In upsetting Snowflake, the Longhorns fought a fierce see-saw battle. They trailed 12-7 at the end of the first quarter before dominating the second period 19-9 to take a 26-21 halftime lead. PHS struggled to find the basket in the third quarter, scoring just three points, as Snowflake tied it up at 29 all and both teams traded shots in the fourth quarter — with a score of 37 each.
The Longhorns then outscored Snowflake 8-4 in the four-minute extra session.
Payson won it at the free throw line, sinking 20 of 36 compared to the Lobos’ 11 of 16.
Senior Arianna Paulson had a big night with 14 points, seven steals, six rebounds and two assists. Sophomore Tessa Hintze had 13 points, six rebounds and four steals. She went to the foul line 16 times, making 11 of them. Sophomore Arissa Paulson had 10 points, 14 of her team’s 35 rebounds and four blocks. Senior Harley Turney added eight points, three steals and two boards.
Previously, the Longhorns had beaten Snowflake 66-61 in overtime at Payson on Jan. 3. The Lobos avenged that loss with a 45-34 victory on Jan. 24. But the Longhorns, who finished fourth in the section, have now gone 5-2 since that defeat.
“Snowflake’s a tough team,” White said. “They play super hard. We started a little slow, then we woke up and made some really good decisions. In overtime, the girls were diving all over the floor. They really wanted that win. I’m really proud of them.”
The Horns prevailed even though junior Cori Barnett fouled out late in regulation while trying to contain Snowflake’s best player, 5-foot-10 center Jessica Neff. Sophomore Sara Novack filled in admirably in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter and in overtime, snaring three defensive rebounds and making a steal.
“Cori played so hard against their post,” White said. “She did a really good job defensively and is such an asset to our team. But Sara came in and stepped up and played really well.”
White said she isn’t surprised her team won.“I knew coming in it could be anybody’s game,” she said. “I knew the girls would play hard. I also knew going in we were going against a really tough team.”
Although the Longhorns won’t be there, PHS is scheduled to host three Division III state tournament games this weekend. In the girls tournament, No. 7 Fountain Hills faces No. 10 Many Farms at 6 p.m., with the winner meeting the Payson-Winslow winner in the quarterfinals at Tim’s Toyota Center at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Two boys second-round games are set for today, with No. 8 Snowflake playing No. 9 Phoenix Cortez at 5 p.m. and No. 5 Show Low going against No. 12 Kingman Academy at 7.