Commentary: This Crookston girls' basketball team could be special
On Saturday, the Crookston girls' basketball team went to Pelican Rapids — the defending Section 8AA champion, a team that ended the Pirates' playoff run last season, a team that hadn't lost a regular-season game in 782 days — and won, 49-34. The Vikings never led; never came close in the second half. From start to finish, it was all Crookston.
Games like that tend to provoke unhelpful, knee-jerk reactions. Strange things happen over the course of 36 minutes that might not necessarily reflect a more substantial period of time.
But Saturday was no one-off.
A game in which everything went right for the Pirates? Maybe. But also, a game that wasn't anything we haven't seen them do this season. All the secrets to their success were on display.
"We played a really great basketball game, and in the lead-up to this, we were well prepared," said Crookston coach Darin Zimmerman. "This team has all the makings of being a great team. We just gotta keep getting better every day."
At the moment, Crookston is 7-1, 6-1 in Section 8AA play. Its scoring average of 60.6 points per game is second in the section; its defense, allowing just 32.5 points on average, is not only tops in the section, but better than all but five teams statewide, and only one in Class AA. The Pirates' margins of victory during their seven-game winning streak are as follows: 38. 35. 36. 44. 28. 35. 15. They've been untouchable.
You could point out that they lost to Breckenridge in overtime in their season opener. The Cowgirls are 5-2 and lost by only one possession to Section 8AAAA Moorhead. Before Saturday, you could point out the teams Crookston's played during its winning streak had a combined record of 12-27. That line of argument has lost a little bit of its luster now.
How have the Pirates done it?
They press hard on defense, trapping ball-handlers before they even cross half-court. They wave their arms constantly, flustering opponents and forcing bad decisions — while exact stats are unavailable, they almost certainly force over 20 turnovers per game.
They're deadly at creating points off these turnovers in transition, and when in the half-court, they're unselfish and crisp with their passing. It's the reason they've knocked down 7.8 threes per game over their last four outings.
"They trusted each other," Zimmerman said Saturday. "One of the things we talked about as we started our offense, you just gotta make the first easy pass. You don't have to make the scoring pass on the first pass, you gotta make the first easy pass, and we got established on that end."
They're skilled, balanced, versatile, just like the best modern basketball teams are. They've got a go-to scorer in senior Emma Borowicz. A long-armed defensive force/offensive slasher in junior Hayden Winjum. A knockdown shooter and feisty driver in freshman Halle Winjum. Abby Borowicz, Ally Perreault, Amelia Overgaard, Emma Boll, Emma Osborn, Jenna Coauette and Madison Hoiland bring plenty of talent and grit to their respective roles.
As far as breaking down Crookston's roster goes, Saturday is worth revisiting. The Pirates lost twice to Pelican Rapids last season, 32-27 during the regular season and 49-44 in the section quarterfinals. These were games that, from the Pirates' perspective, were marked by a fight-till-the-end mentality in the face of adversity; games notable for the disadvantages they faced.
Before Saturday's game began, Emma Borowicz was, according to Halle Winjum, talking about the vastly different circumstances surrounding this year's meeting with the Vikings vs. last year's two contests. Borowicz missed both, having torn her ACL just two days before the first game.
Truth is, the 2019-20 Crookston team might have been every bit as good as this one appears to be, but didn't get the chance to show it down the stretch. Senior Gretchen Theis, the Pirates' third-leading scorer, missed much of February, including the first Pelican Rapids game. It's hard not to think about what could have been if Crookston had Theis' presence on Feb. 1 in Moorhead, if it had Borowicz there to get the key buckets down the stretch four weeks later.
Borowicz certainly thought about it.
"It didn't matter who we were playing, she wanted to be out there," Zimmerman said. "She's a competitor, and just wanted to be out there to help her team. ... You could tell that she was motivated and she was ready (Saturday)."
Borowicz, speaking after Saturday's win, said she doesn't consider herself more or less motivated than anyone else out there. Whatever the case, she's averaging 14 points per game this season, and 18.8 over her last four. She's been red-hot from distance, drilling over three 3-pointers in each of those games. She's shooting without fear, hesitation or regard for any hands in her face.
If last year's two matchups against Pelican Rapids left you wondering what could have been, you're seeing it now.
Crookston has improved its record every season since Zimmerman was hired in 2015. From 4-23, to 7-20, to 13-14, to 18-11, to 21-7. Who knows what the next step is, all the ingredients are there to take it.
"We're just gonna do the same approach that we always do," Zimmerman said of his team's next steps after its biggest win in quite some time. "Work hard, execute, look at the areas that we gotta get better at."
The Pirates weren't thinking far down the road Saturday. They were looking ahead to tough regular-season games coming up in the next few days and weeks.
But even if taking things one game at a time maybe rings a little cliche for a cynical observer, it's good advice for fans of Crookston girls' basketball.
Whatever happens over the rest of the season, teams like this only come around every so often. Make sure to take it all in.
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