Pine River boys celebrate another Highland title

EVART — Pine River came into a Highland Conference boys basketball contest Feb. 25 against Evart knowing all that stood in its way of a second-straight conference title was the Wildcats.

With their goal right in front of them, the Bucks took care of business with a 74-43 victory over the Wildcats (8-10, 5-7 Highland) to clinch back-to-back Highland titles after not winning a title the previous 12 seasons before that.

“We worked hard all season to be Highland Conference champs and it’s nice to be champs again,” Pine River senior Brandon Hoaglund said.

“Honestly, I’m kind of speechless right now,” junior Lucas Harris added. “We worked hard all night and it was just awesome to win (last Tuesday).”

Pine River would then beat Beal City on Thursday on the road and end the regular season at 14-0 in the Highland and 18-2 overall.

Bucks coach Brian Goodenow said his team’s been able to respond to the pressure of getting everyone’s best shot all season.

“When you’re the top dog, everyone’s biggest game is against you,” he said. “I know (Evart) wanted to play spoiler on their home floor and they played us real hard. I just couldn’t be more proud of our guys.

“A Highland Conference championship has always been goal No.1,” he continued. “To win it outright means a lot. We’ll celebrate this a little bit.”

The Bucks jumped on the Wildcats early with a 7-0 run to open the game to with 5:16 to play in the first quarter following a jumper from Mitchell McDonald. Evart first got on the board a minute later with two layups by Chris Garner to cut the Pine River lead to 9-4 with just under four minutes to play in the first, but Pine River closed out the quarter with two free throws from Harris to take a 11-4 lead into the second quarter.

Pine River opened the second with back-to-back layups from McDonald and Harris, respectively, but Evart rallied back with a three-pointer from Robert Burge to cut the Bucks’ lead to 15-7 with 5:45 before the half.

That would be as close as the Wildcats would get, though, as the Bucks ripped off a 14-6 run to push their lead to 29-13 with 1:37 to go before the half after a trey from Harris to help Pine River go into the half with a 33-18 lead.

“It was really important for us to control the game early because we always want to to get off to a fast start,” Hoaglund said. “That’s what we try to do every game.”

The Bucks continued to take control in the second half as they opened the third quarter with an 8-3 run to take a 41-22 lead with 5:32 to go in the third following a three-pointer by Skyler Nelson.

That lead would grow to 50-30 at the end of the third quarter after the Bucks outscored the Wildcats 9-8 to close out the quarter.

With the conference title in their sights, the Bucks outscored Evart 21-13 in the fourth to secure the victory and another league title.

“We played Pine River pretty tough last time and they jumped on us early then, but we fought back from a bigger hole then,” Evart coach Kris Morgan said. “We just can’t really get over the hump. that first half, the lid was on the basket. We fought, but hopefully we’ll see (Pine River) in districts next week.”

Morgan said the Wildcats were getting open looks due to the Bucks playing a zone defense, but they weren’t able to take advantage of those looks.

Hoaglund had a triple double for the Bucks with 10 points, 11 assists and 12 rebounds while Harris tallied 24 points, five rebound and four steals and McDonald had 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

Garner led the Wildcats with 13 points while Robert Tapling had eight points for the Wildcats.