The more you watch them, the more the teeth of Crookston’s defense look like fangs.
Often, it’s Dani Boyle or Halle Winjum on one side, Hayden Winjum on the other. Together, the two Pirates strafe ball-handlers near the halfcourt line, rush to spring a trap at an opponent’s first sign of nerves, all the while waving their arms and forcing errant passes — often into the hands of a teammate.
This is the hallmark of Darin Zimmerman’s high-pressure, full-court defense and interconnected transition offense. For Hayden Winjum in particular, it’s almost tailor-made.
“She’s tenacious,” Zimmerman said. “She’s all over the place.”
Added senior guard Gretchen Theis: “Up at the top, she’s pretty intimidating to run into.”
Crookston’s 69-32 win over Ada-Borup on Tuesday night was Winjum at her best. Winjum scored 17 points, pulled down 10 rebounds, racked up eight steals and swished two 3-pointers, just the latest gaudy stat line she’s recorded this month. The sophomore guard has scored in double figures in each of her last five games, averaging 14.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 steals over that span.
“She's a really good athlete, she's a very skilled player,” Zimmerman said. “To be able to play in space and run and catch, she can do all those things. (Our style of play) just plays well to how she plays.”
Winjum is about as natural a basketball specimen as you’ll find anywhere; a spidery 5-foot-10 bundle of long limbs and quick-twitch, highly coordinated athleticism. With her frame alone, defense has always been her calling card, but those physical gifts are amplified by an uncanny sense of when to use them.
“She's playing good, clean basketball, and she's not fouling,” Zimmerman said. “(Fouling) really has never been (a problem), but to raise her intensity the way she has without fouling just speaks to how hard she's working and how smart of a player she is.”
Much of Winjum’s development this season has taken place on the offensive end, but that progression is impossible to unhitch from her defensive menace. She began Tuesday’s game by netting a three from the right wing and, a minute later, stealing an inbounds pass under the basket and laying it in. She leaked out after a Cougar turnover which she helped create, ran down an overthrown outlet pass and somehow tipped it to a teammate just before falling out of bounds.
On two possessions in a row midway through the second half, Winjum swiped a pass thrown behind its target and took it to the hoop, exploding past every chasing Cougar. On Ada-Borup’s next trip down the court, she brought a double team, spiked a pass to the ground and set up another score.
“We're a really strong defensive team, and that also helps me because I get tips and then my teammate's ready for the steal,” Winjum said. “We work really well together on defense with moving and help-side.”
Winjum has always created offense through defense, but Zimmerman has seen something different in her the last few weeks. He’s noticed a more assertive, confident offensive player in the halfcourt, one with a more consistent outside shot and a willingness to crash the paint and create havoc.
When the Cougars went on an 8-0 run minutes before halftime, cutting Crookston’s lead to eight, it was Winjum who threw her long arm out and pushed them aside with a knifing drive to the basket. She did the same with a big 3-pointer minutes into the second half.
“She's always been just a solid player, she doesn't make a ton of mistakes,” Zimmerman said. “But she's been a lot more assertive with the basketball, whether she's shooting or dribble-driving more. And not only has she scored more, it's caused defenses to collapse on her and she's finding her open teammates too.”
It’s a narrative you’re plenty familiar with: young, uber-skilled athlete finally ready to show off all her skills to the world. In many cases, the deciding factor is increased confidence — but Winjum, herself, doesn’t know if that’s the case.
Whatever the reason, Winjum’s combination of tools and assertiveness has sprung into another gear — meaning the Pirates have, too. It’s no coincidence that their two highest-scoring games of the season have come during her hot streak, and that they’ve averaged five more points per game during that time too.
Watch her play, look at the stat sheet, your pick: Hayden Winjum epitomizes Crookston girls’ basketball.
“Hayden has risen her game to a different level,” Zimmerman said. “ … She’s just a difference maker for us.”
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