Blizzards fall to Wink Wildcats in grinder

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

WINTERS, TX - The Winters Blizzards (23-5, 9-1) fell 57-48 to the Wink Wildcats (26-0, 10-0) on neutral territory in Garden City.

The Blizzards' Trent Hamilton (22), puts the ball in the basket on a layup over the Wink defender. Hamilton's size, skill and athleticism were tough for the Wink Wildcats to defend in the 2A state quarterfinal game.

The game ended Winters' season, but even in the loss, the Blizzards made a statement. That statement is, "We'll be back."

The Blizzards kept the energy up for each second of the 32 minute game. Fans and relatives from Wink and Winters packed the stands in beautiful Bearkats gymnasium in Garden City. The gym was filled with cheers and groans on every possession. The atmosphere was electric with positive energy overflowing.

The Blizzards Chaney Bahlman (15) puts up a short jumper over the Wink defender during the Blizzards 57-48 loss to Wink in the state 2A quarterfinals.

The teams battled back time and time again to trade the lead in a contest that many thought would be a blowout for Wink. The Blizzards were led by Alex Salas, Jon Kullen Busher with their Murderer's Row of shooters: Chaney Bahlman, Trent Hamilton, Aidan Leamon, Mason Crowe, Dayvin Oats and Malakye Kelly.

The Blizzards' Malakye Kelly (3) pulls back a pass as one Wink defender goes to the floor and a 2nd one comes flying in.

This season, the Blizzards under their new head coach Colton Holmes, built their game against a stifling defense that smothered opponents. The Blizzards defense has been practically indomitable all season, as Winters won 23 of their 28 games. That lock-down defense has held opponents to an average of 35.1 points all season.

Not to be outdone, the Blizzards offense has refused to simply rely on a suffocating defense to win the games. The Blizzards have averaged 51.2 points on offense. Winning by an average of 16.1 points has shown just how talented the team is. In a recent interview with the newspaper Holmes commented on the defense complimenting the offense, "You get good offense off of good defense."

The Blizzards' Alex Salas (21) pulls up for a jump shot over a Wink defender. Salas would get hurt and end up leaving the game a few plays later.

Holmes has preached mental toughness all season. That has been the hallmark of Winters season. It proved beneficial against the Wildcats. The Blizzards had to reach deep down in the game against Wink. Playing a team that has scored an average of 68.5 points wasn't an easy assignment. The Wildcats defense gave up 48 points on average during the season. That's exactly what the Blizzards scored in their loss.

The game was fast-paced right out of the gate. Winters won the tip off but failed to score. Wink went the length of the court, hitting the shot to take a 2-0 lead. The Blizzards scored to even the game at 2-2. The game was quickly turned into a blow-for-blow show. Wink went the length of the court to drop in a 3-pointer, taking a 5-2 lead. The Blizzards answered with a trey of their own, tying the score at 5-5.

The Blizzard defense kept Wink from scoring on their next possession. Wink missed the shot, but Bahlman had set up shop under the basket, pulling down the defensive rebound. The Blizzards were headed up the court behind the Wink defense. The Blizzards knocked down their second 3-pointer in a row, taking an 8-5 lead.

The Blizzards' Jon Kullen Busher beats the Wink defender on a layup during the Blizzards 57-48 loss to the unbeaten Wink Wildcats in Garden City on Friday.

The Wink defense kept the Blizzards from scoring on their next 2 possessions. The Wildcats' offense took a 9-8 lead 3 minutes into the period. The Blizzards came back, knocking down shot after shot, thanks to some sharp passing. The Blizzards had a 17-14 lead with a few ticks left on the clock when the Wildcats were fouled on a 3-point shot to try and beat the buzzer. When the 1st period ended after the free throws, the game was knotted up at 17-17.

Winters put the next 2 points on the board when Hamilton, who dominated in the paint most of the game, hit a layup. Wink once again answered the call, taking a 23-19 lead halfway through the period. The Blizzards fought back, trading punches with the Wildcats until retaking the lead, 26-25, behind a Busher 3-pointer. Winters increased their lead, 28-25, as the first half expired.

Winters' Mason Crowe (5) puts up a 3-point shot against the Wink Wildcats in the 2A state basketball quarterfinals in Garden City on Friday. The Blizzards would end up falling, 57-48.

Although the Blizzards had the lead at halftime, there was bad news when starter Salas went down with a knee injury. Salas got tangled up with the Wildcats' Junior Quiroz while going for a steal. Salas was down for a few seconds and helped off the court. The trainer took Salas to the locker room, returning about 3 minutes later. Salas returned to the court wearing sleeves on both legs.

Salas got back into the game, getting fouled almost immediately. He went down momentarily, but toed the free throw line to take his shots. He was obviously in pain when the trainer went out to tend to him again before Salas could shoot his first free throw. Salas waved him off, even though it was apparent that he couldn't put weight on his injured right knee. Coach Holmes walked onto the court and spoke 5 words to Salas to end his night, "Alex, come on. Let's go."

The Blizzards Alex Salas (21) was almost impossible for Wink to defend. Salas would end up getting hurt a few plays later and have to leave the game.

Salas reluctantly left the court while Aidan Leamon took the free throws. Kelly came in to replace Salas. The Blizzards knew that they would have to play a near-perfect game without Salas if they wanted to come home with a win. All season Salas has been a key piece of the Blizzards' puzzle. His athleticism and high-energy play has troubled teams throughout the season.

The duo of Salas/Busher was an impossible equation for opponents to solve this season. This game was no different. Wink was having problems dealing with the duo, while also trying to stop the rest of the teams capable shooters from knocking down shots. With Salas out, Busher became the go-to doubleteam target for the Wildcats.

In the 3rd period, staunch defense from both teams dominated the first 3 minutes as Winters ground out a narrow 32-31 lead. Hamilton dominated around the rim, giving Wink a significant problem to deal with. The Blizzards eventually increased their lead, 40-31.

The Blizzards' Trent Hamilton (22) set up camp in the paint during the state 2A quarterfinal game against Wink. Hamilton quickly drew double teams, yet dominated for most of the game before the Blizzards eventually fell 57-48.

Wink made a fierce charge to keep the game from getting out of hand, ending the 3rd period down only 42-40.

In the 4th period, both the Wildcats offense and defense would come alive, putting up 17 points to the Blizzards 6 points. Shots that had been falling in the first half of the game for the Blizzards were now missing the mark. Wink took a commanding 55-45 lead with 90-seconds left in the game. It was a deficit the Blizzards couldn't overcome. Up to the last minute, Holmes was calling timeouts, drawing up plays for his team to mount a comeback behind. In the end, it wasn't meant to be.

The final buzzer sounded with the Wildcats winning 57-48. Wink will move to take on Panhandle in the semifinals.

The game was everything that it was anticipated to be. It was a slugging match, with both teams going on runs to take big leads. Winters big run was in the 3rd period, while the Wildcats biggest run was in the 4th period.

The grind of the game against Wink is apparent on the face of the Blizzards' Jon Kullen Busher (1) in the last 2 minutes of the 57-48 loss to Wink in the state 2A quarterfinals in Garden City.

Coach Holmes commented about coming into the season, "I knew we had some kids that could be really good players. The kids really bought in from the start and made some big strides early in the year. I think the biggest surprise was the buy-in from the kids. As a new coach you dream about the perfect scenario where the kids just eat everything up and do their best to execute things perfectly. I feel like that is exactly what this season was. The kids did everything I asked them to do and then some.

Winters Blizzards' coach Colton Holmes gives some instruction to his team during their game against Wink in the state 2A quarterfinals in Garden City.

Holmes also commented on preparing for the game against Wink, As for the Wink game we came in knowing who we needed to stop and what their strengths were. I think we executed our game plan almost flawlessly for 3 quarters. But, you have to give credit where credit is due and I think Wink does a great job of handling pressure and they made some big plays down the stretch. They are 26-0 for a reason."

Holmes said that the team stepped up with Salas went down, adjusting and adapting, "When Alex went down I was worried about him, but I did my best to not show any emotions to the kids. I was very happy how our bench stepped up and performed at a high level. Alex is a big part of our team and he does a lot of things for us. I think the guys did an amazing job stepping up and making plays when their number was called on. As a coach you want to go into a game like that at full strength, their will always be that what if had Alex been in the entire game. But, with that being said our entire team put everything they had into that game and I couldn’t be more proud of them."

The excitement factor was part of all of the Blizzards' games this season, "Games like this one are what players first pick up a basketball for. These are the games coaches want to coach in. I think our team played one of their best games of the season against one of the best teams in the state. I’m very proud of these young men and I can’t wait till next year. Making it this far will only make these guys hungrier and they will work that much harder. I think we laid a good foundation this year and we will do our best to build on that next year," Holmes said.

Salas and Kelly graduate in May, but the other six players will be returning. Those six returners are a wealth of talent and experience. The players know what it takes to make it deep into the playoffs. This season is something that they can certainly build upon. Busher, Oats, Crowe, Bahlman and Hamilton will be seniors, while Leamon will be a junior.

Some will consider the game to be a heartbreaking loss to end the Blizzards' season. The loss was anything but heartbreaking. It showcased everything that the Blizzards have been comprised of this season, the fiber of the team: mental toughness, resolve, determination, fortitude, respect and teamwork. The Blizzards went down swinging as they refused to surrender. They went out with a bang, rather than a whimper.

The respect between between the players and coach is a two-way street. Many consider Holmes a next-level coach, leading a team filled with next-level players.

In the end, that 2020-2021 Area Championship banner will look great in the Blizzards' gym, reminding everyone of just what that team accomplished and what they're capable of.