Crookston ended an eight game losing streak to East Grand Forks and advanced to the Section Championship Game for the first time since 2013.
CROOKSTON - It almost seemed fitting. The No. 10 Crookston Pirates crossing paths with the No. 3 East Grand Forks Green Wave in the Section 8AA Semifinals. With one win, the Pirates could erase all the turmoil from past heartbreaks courtesy of the Green Wave: a two-point loss, a 22-point loss, a season-ending loss and five more prior. This one win would also put the Pirates in the Section 8AA Finals.
A Crookston girls’ basketball team had not defeated EGF since 2015. Coincidentally, 2015 served as the last time the Pirates made it to the semifinals. Since then, eight straight losses to the Green Wave.
But this night was different. This team was different. Although they did not play together when the EGF skid began in 2016, they appeared eager to avenge all those that came before them. On this particular night, there would be no season-ending heartbreak. Not for Crookston at least.
With a strong crowd behind them, the Pirates held East Grand Forks (20-8, 12-4 Section 8AA) to their second-lowest scoring mark of the season and put an end to East Side’s 2018-2019 campaign with a 47-35 victory. The win sends Crookston (18-10, 11-6 Section 8AA) to the Section 8AA Finals for the first time since 2013.
No one Pirate carried the load offensively. Rather, seven different players contributed with points. Emma Borowicz (So. G) led the way with 11, Kasey Cwikla (Jr. G) provided 10 off the bench, Kylie Solheim (Sr. G) scored eight, Hayden Winjum (Fr. G) totaled seven, Dani Boyle (Jr. G) and Rachel Hefta (Sr. F) tallied five apiece and Gretchen Theis (Jr. G) made a free throw.
“I’d rather just have a whole bunch of kids that score on any given night than one or two,” Pirates Head Coach Darin Zimmerman said. “With one or two, they’re really going to focus on that, and if they have a bad night, then you’re hoping everybody else plays better. This season, on any given night, we’ve got multiple players who can step up and score.”
Not a single Green Wave player made it to double digit scoring. Haley Burger (Jr. C) headlined the EGF side at nine, Breanna Olson (Jr. G) notched six as did Kadynn Melquist (So. G), Mac Aitchison (Sr. F) added four, Brynn Hillman (Jr. G) and Ella Eggers (So. G) each scored three and Chloe Torgerson (So. G) and Macy Skyberg (Sr. G) rounded out the list with two each.
In the two regular season games against the Pirates, Torgerson averaged 15 per contest.
East Grand Forks, No. 2 in the North Sub-section and No. 3 overall, won their first two tournament games by a total of 121 points. The Green Wave averaged 66.5 points per game in their last six and scored at least 70 in their previous three. But the defense of the Pirates wore out EGF.
Crookston, No. 5 in the North Sub-section and 10th overall, extends their winning streak to seven in a row. In this span, the Pirates held their opponents to 41.2 points per game.
“We had a kid on the ball all night long,” Zimmerman said. “Whether it was in the full-court or half-court, we had a kid on the ball all the time, which was big for us. I thought we did such a nice job away from the ball. We jumped to the ball, we took away their baseline, did a nice job on the big kid inside, so it was really just all those five girls working as one.”
The game never presented the feeling of a blowout, but it is a fact the Pirates did not trail once in the game’s entirety. The fans separated by 25 miles brought an electric energy in the pregame, and the Crookston contingent exploded when Borowicz sunk a three-pointer 40 seconds into the game for a 3-0 lead.
Hefta added a free throw, Winjum converted on a bucket, Solheim put in a free throw, and the EGF side sat stunned as they watched their team trail 7-0 five minutes into the contest.
“It helped to establish ourselves really early, but the biggest thing was we had to come out and play our game,” Zimmerman said. “Do the things defensively we wanted to do, take care of the ball and that was the difference between this game and some of those earlier ones.”
Following a shot from the charity stripe, Aitchison recorded the Green Wave’s first field goal to make it a 7-3 game. On the ensuing possession, Winjum buried the team’s second trey of the evening.
The already hectic crowd nearly blew the lid off Lysaker Gymnasium when Boyle’s three increased the Pirates’ lead to 13-5. Burger scored two points on a pair of free throws, and Borowicz responded by delivering another three-pointer. Things officially went beyond bonkers as Solheim’s shot from behind the arc swished for a 19-9 advantage.
“Early on, it’s take what’s there,” Zimmerman said. “The three-point shot was there, and our girls were confident, so they came out and shot it. As the game wore on, [EGF] tried to extend their pressure out, so we knew the inside would be more open.”
East Grand Forks reached the bonus with 11:15 to go in the first half, just before Borowicz’s trey, but did nothing to capitalize going 1-for-2 the rest of the frame.
Burger and Olson cut the deficit to 19-12, but the Pirates shot their lead right back up to 10 featuring a Borowicz layup, and a Theis free throw.
“At the beginning, we knew that we had to come out really, really strong because they were going to try and beat us in the first 10 minutes like they normally do,” Hefta said. “So to come out in those first couple minutes and just beat them on our court was amazing.”
The two teams traded baskets for the next four minutes until Solheim notched the Pirates’ fifth three-pointer of the half for a 30-20 lead as the clock showed 1:44 remaining.
Melquist brought life to the EGF bench hitting a trey for a 30-23 score. East Side possessed the opportunity for another shot before halftime, but a turnover squandered such a chance, and the Pirates preserved their seven-point lead.
Hefta provided a spark to kick off the second half. The senior scored twice along with Winjum’s basket in less than two minutes to counter Melquist’s bucket, and Crookston remained ahead by 10.
At this point in the night, the Pirates began a series turnovers. Despite the extra possessions, East Grand Forks could not close the gap. Burger scored three on an old-fashion three-point play, and the Green Wave came no closer.
EGF will regret their scoring drought even more as the foul on Burger was Hefta’s fourth, which sent the Pirates’ main post threat to the bench with 11:34 to play.
“Our girls hustled back so hard, that they contested shots,” Zimmerman said on battling turnovers. “We did a good job of getting a body on a kid every single time in transition.”
While the Green Wave struggled to score, Cwikla immersed herself in the offense simply by standing under the rim. Pirates often found the junior alone in the paint, fired a pass and Cwikla took a pair of easy layups for a 40-30 lead with 5:30 left in the game.
Zimmerman broke down how Cwikla made an impact off the bench.
“Kasey did a good job of finding open gaps in the zone,” Zimmerman said. “When [EGF] tries to extend their pressure, there are open spots if you can find them. Kasey did a really good job of positioning herself behind the zone to get herself a look. Got to credit our guards too for finding her down there. It’s a hard pass. You’re literally passing through five green jerseys, but they got it to her, and Kasey is a good finisher, so she got it done.”
After Burger’s three-point play, EGF went just under 11 minutes with no points. Crookston only added nine in the stretch, but by the time the Green Wave finally found the basket, the dagger had already been applied.
The Pirates had done it. They had beaten the supposedly insurmountable East Grand Forks Green Wave, and they did it convincingly.
Up next: a chance for a state tournament berth. The last time Crookston hoisted a section championship trophy and made an appearance at state came in 2008 when a one Kamille [Meyer] Wahlin wore the Pirate uniform. The Pirates took third in the state that season.
To jump the final hurdle, Crookston will need to dethrone the top-seeded team in the section, the Roseau Rams. The Pirates have not beaten the Rams since 2015, the year before Zimmerman took over. In the same season, Roseau eliminated Crookston from the playoffs in the semifinals.
When Roseau and Crookston met in this year’s regular season, the Rams escaped a scare with an 84-78 win in overtime. The Pirates overcame a 16-point deficit to take a one-point lead with six minutes to play. Crookston then erased a five-point disadvantage with 17 seconds to go to force overtime. The Rams went on to outscore the Pirates 15-9 in extra time and seal the win.
Heading into the biggest game for Crookston in six years, Hefta expressed a great deal of confidence in the group-oriented Pirates.
“We have a good team,” Hefta said. “We work together to get everything done, and it’s just an amazing atmosphere in practices and in games.”
Tip-off will be on Friday, March 8 at 7 p.m. at Lysaker Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Crookston campus.
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