MOORHEAD — In Hayden Winjum’s estimation, it was the lowest-scoring half she’s played in since sixth grade.

Maybe the sophomore guard wasn’t prepared to see Home: 11, Visitor: 4 on the scoreboard after 18 minutes had elapsed. But apart from that, everything else about Crookston vs. Pelican Rapids had gone according to plan.

The seventh-ranked Vikings have developed a reputation for tough, bruising play — a huge reason they came into Saturday 19-0. They forced the Pirates to work up a sweat to create any offensive daylight, never giving an inch.

“They are really physical, and they're up on you on every shot,” Winjum said. “Our shots just weren't dropping today. We kinda figured out ways to get around them and draw the foul, but it was still difficult.”

Crookston ultimately lost, 32-27, but the 23 points it scored in the second half was an undeniable achievement. The Pirates treated it as such — despite leaving the Heart O’ Lakes Showcase with their fourth loss, they also left with their toughness and pride intact.

“This was an unbelievable effort,” said head coach Darin Zimmerman. “I told the girls: the only thing I’m even remotely disappointed in is the end result.”

Zimmerman and Winjum both felt that Crookston was already a tough team coming into Saturday. The Pirates’ practices are generally physical, featuring bodies flying all over the court. But they knew they would have to be tougher still, with the absence of starters Emma Borowicz (knee injury) and Gretchen Theis (illness).

“Tough” can be a buzzword, a catch-all for when a more specific or strategic factor eludes grasping. That wasn’t the case in Moorhead.

In the first half, Crookston focused mainly on acclimating to Pelican Rapids’ in-game physicality. After the Vikings went on a 6-0 run in the first two minutes, the teams battled to a standstill over the next 16 as the Pirates slowly began to equal their opponents’ grinding style.

“It was just a matter of trying to get them to go a little harder and anticipate that they're gonna have some contact,” Zimmerman said.

The real adjustments came at halftime and later. Instead of just matching the Vikings, Crookston looked to counteract them.

Pelican Rapids effectively walled off the paint on defense, preventing the Pirates from getting any real penetration. The remedy: a backdoor cut here and there, a solid screen here and there, slightly better execution all around.

“We just talked about, when you see this look, you just gotta screen away from it, backdoor, or even on a dribble drive,” Zimmerman said. “Lot of times we were one dribble away from getting around a defense, they were coming in and walling up.”

Zimmerman praised Winjum — who finished with 10 points to lead the team — in this regard. Winjum used a quick first step and her ability to keep the dribble alive to get to the rim and the free-throw line, keeping Crookston afloat for the entire game.

There’s no doubt Borowicz and Theis would have helped on Saturday, providing needed boosts of outside shooting and playmaking. But their absence meant that the Pirates’ loss had a prominent silver lining.

The theme of the last few weeks for Crookston has been an increase in adversity. That’s come in the form of tighter games against more challenging opponents, such as a 52-49 win over Perham on Jan. 23 and a 61-60 loss to Roseau on Jan. 28. It’s come in the form of losses to key players. The Pirates aren’t steamrolling teams like Bagley, Park Rapids or Ada-Borup anymore — and they know they won’t be doing so in the games that matter.

“Little extra toughness, anticipating that teams aren't just gonna give us things sometimes, and we just gotta put our head down and make a stronger cut, be a little stronger with the ball,” Zimmerman said. “It's all the fundamental things that really dictate the course of how the game's gonna be. Just being a little bit better with those fundamentals.”

The Pirates know that it’s a process to get there. On Saturday, that process kept moving along.

“We learned how to be tough in this game,” Winjum said. “We pushed through. We missed those starters, but we played really well as a team and I'm happy with how we played together. … This game really made us step up.”

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