Up until last Tuesday, Crookston boys’ basketball wasn’t sure where it was going to go for the postseason.
The Pirates (9-17 overall, 6-12 section play) were hoping for a favorable first-round matchup against Warroad or Thief River Falls — teams they’ve gone a combined 3-1 against this year. Instead, a 69-51 loss to Bagley on Feb. 25 helped knock them down all the way to the No. 7 seed in the Section 8AA North Division.
Their opponent? No. 2 seed Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (20-6, 14-4), which beat Crookston 91-56 in Glyndon on Jan. 6.
“We think we can beat DGF,” said senior guard Walker Winjum on Wednesday. “But we know we can beat (Thief River Falls or Warroad).”
The difference between knowing and thinking is, in this case, massive. The Pirates match up well with the Prowlers or Warriors in terms of talent — they can play them straight-up and win. But with the Rebels, the talent disparity is so massive that Crookston will have to fundamentally alter its style to have a chance.
The Pirates, though, think they have found a blueprint for doing so.
Winjum compared DGF to East Grand Forks, which the Pirates have faced twice this season. The first of those meetings, a 107-71 loss on Jan. 2, saw Crookston unable to match the Green Wave’s tempo. But in the second, a 67-36 loss on Feb. 14, the Pirates were slow and methodical on offense. They kept the game close at halftime, and while a second-half drought brought on a blowout, they held EGF to 11 points under their season average.
“DGF like East Side, they’re both teams that wanna beat you just by running up and down the court,” Winjum said. “ ... So if you just slow it down on offense and get your best kind of looks, and make them slow it down on their offensive end, it should work.”
Limiting a superior team’s opportunities is a time-tested underdog formula. But it also means that there’s no margin for error.
While Crookston will limit the Rebels’ chances by slowing the game down, it won’t have as many chances itself. The Pirates will have to hit their shots (“I think if we get hot early and stay hot, we’ll be able to keep it going,” Winjum said), rebound, and take care of the ball to maximize these chances — all things they didn’t do in Glyndon two months ago.
On defense, Crookston will look to keep DGF from getting easy looks at the rim — coach Greg Garmen estimated that 90 percent of the Rebels’ points in the first game came within two feet of the basket. DGF can still beat you from outside, though, so contesting shots will be critical.
And no matter how well the Pirates succeed at this, they’ll still have to deal with the Rebels’ 2-2-1 press, which naturally works to force turnovers and speed the game up. Crookston’s second unit has pressed all season in practice, and this has only increased in emphasis over the past few days — Garmen’s even thrown in a sixth player at times to simulate the pressure the Pirates will face on Thursday.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room. Crookston’s best player, senior center Caden Osborn, first hurt his knee on Feb. 10 and was out the next two games, including the loss at East Grand Forks. After coming back for two games, he missed the Pirates’ final regular-season game. Garmen said that he looked “okay” on Wednesday in a full-practice scenario, but his status for Thursday remains touch-and-go.
But having its leading scorer and rebounder won’t help much if Crookston plays like it did in the first meeting — which was, according to Garmen, “just lethargic.”
“We gotta be more energetic,” he said. “When we step on the floor, we gotta move faster on both ends of the floor, pass the ball crisper, and shoot the ball like we mean it.”
The Pirates’ JV and C teams’ seasons ended last week, and as a result, Garmen has described a quieter gym, one in which Crookston can really tune out outside noise and buckle down. According to Garmen, his team has had a strong week of practice, focusing totally on what it needs to do to win.
“Me yelling at them is a lot of it, but they have to bring it every day,” he said. “Our coaching staff, we’re not cheerleaders, but we can only do so much and yell so much to get them going. They have to realize it’s their season.”
The Pirates also realize that the outside observer would expect their season to come to an end Thursday. And as well-crafted as their gameplan might be, a nothing-to-lose mindset might be their biggest advantage.
“They might be overlooking us,” Winjum said. “So we gotta come in with some intensity and play our hardest.”
Should they do just that on Thursday, a monumental upset could be theirs — but only if everything else goes exactly right.
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