Adam Watts: Stifling defense makes high-energy Winhawks boys basketball team dangerous

January 16, 2019

The Winona boys basketball team found its identity and could be dangerous.

The way the Winhawks played this past weekend, they could cause problems for the best teams around. They have a rare energy and spark on the basketball court and play with a never-say-die attitude that is going to make them nigh-impossible to put away. They found their identity in stifling defensive performances and high-energy hustling basketball under first-year head coach Kyle Martin.

“This year’s coaches have a big defensive mindset,” junior forward Jackson Nibbelink said. “I think we’re second in the conference in defense. It’s just another energy when you’ve got such a great defense and can hold teams in the 40s — 10 points in the second half.”

Winona completely dismantled Owatonna and Irondale down the stretch on back-to-back nights this past Friday and Saturday, defeating Owatonna 50-40 and Irondale 63-49. It allowed only 30 second-half points in those games combined, with 20 against Owatonna and only 10 against Irondale.

With their backs against the wall, trailing Irondale by 15 points with five minutes to go in the first half, the Winhawks dug deep and played near-perfect basketball to climb out of the hole and tie the game before halftime. After scoring 35 points in the first 13 minutes, Irondale only managed 14 over the final 23.

“Our 1-2-2 (defense) is a dangerous thing when it’s running right,” Nibbelink said. “That must have resulted in a lot of turnovers. Once they saw that 1-2-2, they didn’t really know what to do. I think they had to call about four timeouts just to find the holes and they never did end up finding the holes.”

The Winhawks’ refusal to go away easily shows up all game. They never give up. They stifled a number of fastbreak opportunities throughout this weekend’s games. Baskets that should be easy transition layups aren’t so easy with Winona’s tenacious defenders playing all out.

Against Owatonna, Nibbelink ran down a guard who appeared to have an easy layup after stealing a pass, flew in behind him and violently smashed the shot against the backboard. Senior forward Bradley Winter made a similar play the next night against Irondale, but instead of swatting the ball, he grabbed it with two hands and pulled it right off the glass.

“These guys dug so deep, they played with their hearts — these guys play for the Winona on their chests,” Martin said. “When we were down 15 there, they found something. They hit a couple shots and used that momentum — it was big.”

There was an energy inside the Winona Senior High School gymnasium during the last two Winhawks games. It started from the home bench and emanated onto the court and into the crowd. There was a buzz in the air. And the pregame playlist featuring Disturbed, AC/DC, and Van Halen didn’t hurt. It all translates to an exciting atmosphere for basketball and a winning product.

“When these guys get a few shots, they communicate so well, they pump each other up and get it going,” Martin said. “It only takes a couple messages from me. This (win over Irondale) was big for us tonight. Playing from behind big like that will help us down the road.”

The Winhawks have allowed an average of 56 points per game this season, among the lowest in the Big Nine Conference, while scoring 67 points per game. Their only losses have come to Class AAA No. 3 Austin, No. 4 Waseca, Rochester John Marshall, which features one of the top basketball recruits in the country, Matthew Hurt, and a good Rochester Mayo team. The Winhawks have another major test coming up on Friday at Class AAA No. 10 Northfield. If they play the same kind of stifling defense they’ve had on display lately, they’ll have a chance at a big win.

“This is a really good group of guys,” Nibbelink said. “When we set our minds to a goal, we’re going to accomplish it. I can’t think of a game where we didn’t meet all of our goals and win at the same time.”

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