By Tiffany L. Rehbein
When 9:31 a.m. rolled around on Nov. 7, a message board somewhere in Seattle read "Montana girls can hoop it up, too!!"
Another message, posted two days later from one Terry Miller, scrolled across the screen that read, "I have just gotten the opportunity to meet the pride of Havre, MT Miss Loree Payne."
Payne, a true freshman on the University of Washington Husky women's basketball team, is currently ranked second in the PAC-10 Conference in scoring, averaging 18.3 points per game. Her teammate, junior Megan Franza, leads the conference with 19.7 points per game.
Individual highlights this year include making a conference-high 12 field goals against Oklahoma State on Dec. 19. She attempted a lofty 23 field goals and 12 3-point shots against Arizona on Jan. 15 for an individual high in the league.
But stellar play from Payne is not foreign to Havre fans.
Payne, a 1999 graduate of Havre High School, is ranked No. 1 in the Montana recordbooks, with an average of 25 points sustained during her four-year varsity career as a Blue Pony. She averaged 28 points her junior and senior year. Her field goal percentage during high school was 49 percent, while her free throw average was 77.
She is No. 2 in Montana with a high school career point total of 2,299 points.
Payne was honored as a 1998 Nike All-American and was named Montana's 1999 USA Today Player of the Year. She was named a two-time ('98 and '99) Gatorade Circle of Champions Montana High School Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
She was listed in America's Top 50 seniors, Reebok All-Star Top 100 Juniors, and America's Best Super Sophomores. She was named Havre High School Athlete of they Year, and was a three-year selection by USA Today as one of the top 25 players in Montana.
She was a four-year team and conference MVP, and four-year all-state and all-conference selection. She was a three-year team captain, and a member of the 1997 State Class A Blue Pony championship basketball team and a member of the 1998 and 1999 State Class A Blue Pony championship volleyball team.
She broke the Havre High school record in scoring as a junior, pouring in 45 points in one game.
"She is very talented," Husky Head Coach June Daugherty said. "She was state-championship material in high school. As a coach, you can never underestimate how important it is to have kids come in and have the attitude of winning. It is a great experience to bring."
And most college freshman are not immediately put under the pressure Payne has experienced.
Payne has started every Husky game this season and is second in per-game minutes, averaging more than 33 minutes per game.
The Huskies (5-11, 1-3) were most recently defeated by Arizona (14-2, 3-1) 96-85 at Mercer Arena in Seattle on Jan. 15.
Payne played the second-most minutes at 36 (Franza played 38 minutes) and scored a game-high 27 points, nearly matching her career-high total. She went 10-for-23 from the field, popped five 3-pointers, and went 2-for-2 from the free throw line.
"She is kind of the Larry Bird of women's basketball," Daugherty said. "She is a good scorer. She is a good passer. She is so consistent. Offensively, she is a very steady passer, and is always looking for the open person."
Twice this season, Payne has been named to a first team, all-tournament team. On Nov. 21, she was named to the All-Tournament First Team at the North Carolina State Classic, at Raleigh, N.C.
At the North Carolina tournament, where the Huskies split, losing to North Carolina-Greensboro and defeating Southern Mississippi, Payne scored 39 points, went 16-of-30 from the field, including going 6-for-17 from 3-point land, and grabbed seven rebounds.
On Dec. 19, Payne was selected to the Seattle Times Classic All-Tournament Team. Although the Huskies lost to Oklahoma State 87-76, Payne and teammate Franza (who was also named to the tournament team) scored the Huskies' final 13 points of the game. They also combined for 52 percent of Washington's offense.
Payne tallied a career-high 28 points during the game.
"First and foremost, she has a passion for the game of basketball," Daugherty said. "Every day, she comes in and works on her game. She loves the game and she wants to get better at it. She is very dedicated to the game, and I think she is working very hard to fine tune that."
And Loree Payne, who boasts the same No. 22 she donned in high school, has been fine tuning that game for a long time.
Mary Wagner, a math teacher at Havre High, knew Payne in the classroom during high school, but she knew her first on the basketball court.
"She was in about the sixth grade, and I happened to just walk into the gym at the Middle School," Wagner said. "There was this girl all by herself dribbling between her legs and shooting. She had this great, indescribable skill. I was asking around, Who is that girl playing basketball?' That is when I first became interested in watching girls' basketball."
Even through all the basketball fanfare, academics were also No. 1 in Payne's life. A 4.0 graduate, Payne worked hard in the classroom.
"Her academics were very important to her," Wagner said. "She was top-notch in the classroom. Everything you would expect from a great athlete, you saw in the classroom."
Academics at UW are just as important, though more difficult to fit into her schedule.
"I've learned time management," Payne said. "You learn that you don't have very much time to do stuff. I go to class, and between classes I call my mom or call my grandpa. I've had to learn to adjust to the time that I have."
An academics coach helps the athletes manage school and class and homework when the team is on a road trip.
And Payne has adjusted to more than just time. She has also fine tuned a driving integrity, urged, in part, when practice started on Oct. 16, 1999.
"It is definitely a different level of play over here," Payne said. "At first we just conditioned. Everyone is in such good shape. In Havre, I thought that when we ran in practice I was going to die. That is like a PAC-10 warmup here."
Payne was told early on that she would be playing a lot of minutes.
"They pretty much told me coming in that they expected a lot," Payne said. "I guess I'm just playing with the cards they deal me. Whatever they want me to do, I am all for that."
But Payne is not alone. She relies heavily upon her Christian faith to get her through.
"I think that the Lord has totally just helped me figure things out," Payne said. "It helps me to put things in perspective and just helped me figure things out."
Payne's faith has always been evident in her character, both at Havre and at UW.
"Loree is somebody who is an outstanding young person," Daugherty said. "She has got a great value system, and she has a great church that she is involved in, just like she did in Havre. She has got a great demeanor. She is calm and she is adjusting quickly, and she is doing very well in the classroom."
At Seattle, Payne has visited the children's hospital often and has been active in community service.
"She has a great value system," Wagner said. "Her character on and off the court is consistent. The way she behaved was the way she acted everywhere in life; on the court, in the hallway, off the court."