LEROY — It didn’t take long for the Pine River Bucks to force Evart to play catchup Thursday night.

The Bucks fired out to early leads including a 26-10 advantage after the first quarter and went on defeat the Wildcats 71-44 in Highland Conference boys basketball play.

Devin Ruppert scored 18 points while Mitchell McDonald added 16, Tyler Lewis had 13 and Lincoln Erickson had 10 for the Bucks, who improved to 10-2 in the league and 15-2 overall. Erickson had 10 rebounds, followed by Ruppert with eight. Brandon Hoaglund had six assists.

This week Pine River closes the league season by playing Beal City at home this past Tuesday and at Manton on Thursday. Two wins for Pine River will guarantee the Bucks at least a share of the league title.

Jon Hooker led Evart with 10 points.

“I like our defensive intensity most of the time especially early on,” said Pine River coach Brian Goodenow. “Again, we got off to a great start and then a little bit of a lapse after that. When we have those little lapses, we give up a few.”

McDonald scored 10 points, including a pair of triples in the first quarter.  Lewis hit a pair of triples for the Bucks in the second quarter. Hooker had a three and Nate Struble added six points for the Wildcats to keep it close in the second quarter, although Pine River was up at halftime 40-25.

The Bucks went on a quick run to open the third quarter and put the game away. Erickson hit two straight for a 48-29 lead at 3:04. Ruppert had eight points in the quarter which ended in a 57-38 Pine River lead despite two triples from Evart’s Jake McKinstry.

Skyler Nelson drove for two at 6:21 and a 61-38 Pine River advantage.

“We wanted to get them to slow down a little bit,” said Evart coach Kris Morgan. “We’re not a run-and-gun team. When we slow down and run our offense, we get the shot we want. That takes effort and it takes hard work.”

The league has a three-way tie for first between Beal City, McBain and Pine River.

“If we win out we win half the conference depending on what happens,” Goodenow said. “(Beal City) beat us with hot shooting so we know we need to get out and defend their shooters a little better.”

“All year we’ve been coming out and have been doing great in the first quarter,” McDonald said. “I think we were up 16 against them but got beat. We have to be more consistent. The first quarter is usually our best quarter.”

Evart falls to 6-10 overall and 4-7 in the league.

Setting the tempo “is the key to every game we play,” Morgan said.