Really, it was only one play in a game just 11 minutes old. But something about it felt different.
Maybe it was Kasey Cwikla going all out as she laid out on the sideline and somehow tipped the loose ball right to Halle Winjum. Maybe it was Winjum’s unselfishness as she pump-faked around multiple Perham defenders and shuttled it to a trailing Cwikla, who finished the play with an easy layup. Maybe it was the reaction of the crowd at Crookston High School — which, as the ball went through the net, grew louder than it had all season.
The crowd was recognizing the Pirates’ hustle, sure. But it also seemed to understand that on this night, the stakes were a little bit higher.
Thursday night’s showdown between Crookston and Perham had it all: 16 combined 3-pointers, a superstar performance by Emma Borowicz, a near-comeback from a 15-point deficit for the Yellowjackets and a gritty finish by the Pirates to claim the 52-49 victory and win their eighth straight. It was a game against a formidable section opponent the likes of which Crookston hasn’t been accustomed to this year.
The Pirates came into Thursday at 14-2, outscoring opponents by 26 points on average. They had played just three games decided by single digits. They knew — and know — that the latter number would increase.
“It’s fun to win games by a lot of points, but you're just not always going to do that,” said head coach Darin Zimmerman. “Especially in February as you get closer to the playoffs, you gotta have close games, you gotta be able to test yourself."
Crookston often runs drills towards the end of practice where it will set up the scenario and the score — say, 58-55 with one minute remaining — with the central idea of it all comes down to this. But the stakes vanish outside of that environment, making it hard to duplicate. You can’t know how to grit your teeth and win a one-possession game unless you do it first.
That could be why none of the Pirates seemed to stress about the fact that they had taken a 15-point lead and seen it cut down to one with 92 seconds to play. The chance to test themselves, their ability to buckle down when no alternative exists was almost welcome.
There was no reassuring message of “we’ve been here before” for Zimmerman to deliver to his team. He’d have it if Crookston could get through these next 92 seconds on top, but all he and his team could do was what they knew.
“It just comes down to playing fundamental basketball, doing things you practice constantly,” Zimmerman said. “Because you wanna play the same way all the time and be consistent no matter what the score is.”
Down the stretch, there was no looking back for the Pirates. No feeling of regret or having had an easy win slip away. Just the next play.
“Toughness, finding ways to get it done and understanding that the previous play really truly has no bearing on the next one unless you let it,” Zimmerman said. “Our girls just showed a lot of toughness in those moments.”
Over the span of six possessions, three for each team, with the ramifications greater than they had been to date, Crookston did exactly what it needed to do.
Four free throws between Borowicz and Gretchen Theis. Two forced turnovers on the Yellowjackets’ final two possessions. Feet to the fire. Absolutely no panic.
“Perham kinda slowed the momentum for us, but it never really rattled our girls,” Zimmerman said. “They came out to the huddle, talked about the things we needed to do and they were just ready to go.”
The Pirates will need to do those things again, with seven straight section games coming up before the playoffs in late February and winning ugly becomes the default. But now, the next time they find themselves similarly tested, they'll not only have their own word to go on but the results to prove they can pass the test.
“We definitely are a team that can fight through adversity,” Theis said. “We go out there and play our game as a team, and sometimes it comes in the clutch.”
Added Borowicz: "We kinda have that mindset where it's like, we just wanna take it."
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