FRANKFORT — Buckley spent all of 20 minutes preparing for the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game.
In Monday’s practice, at least.
The Bears emerged from a third-quarter tie in a newly installed three-quarter-court press to storm ahead of Frankfort and win 52-47 at Frankfort on Tuesday.
Buckley (4-0, 3-0 Northwest Conference) remains undefeated on the year — its first 4-0 start since going 26-0 up to the 2016-17 state finals — to share the top spot in the NWC with fellow undefeated Benzie Central (5-0, 2-0).
“A lot of these guys grew up with that happening around them,” Buckley coach Jared Milarch said. “They’ve been working hard, kind of behind the scenes … It’s nice to see them get to a point where they can compete close to the level of where we were.”
The league’s two leaders are set to meet in less than a week — Monday night at Benzie Central with a 6:30 p.m. tip-off.
“It’s awesome because I feel like nobody really respected us coming in,” Buckley senior Kyle Kaczanowski said. “To come out here and start off with four wins is nice. Last year, we came off rocky. The year before that, we didn’t do too good. We’re finally making a comeback.”
Tuesday’s clash was quite the typical NWC battle, with four lead changes and nine ties throughout the night. The Bears and Panthers were tied 10-10 after the first quarter, 20-20 going into halftime and 33-33 after the third.
Milarch said the Bears were playing “Frankfort’s game” in the first half.
“We came out slow,” Kaczanowski said. “We played into their tempo. They wanted to play it slow. They wanted a low-scoring game. That’s what we gave them.”
That’s when Buckley opened on its press, forcing a slew of turnovers to take a two-possession lead, 42-37, with 4:44 left to play — the largest lead for either team up until that point.
“We really dialed it in,” Kaczanowski said. “We knew what we had to do. We threw it together. I wasn’t sure if we could get it to work, but we got it.”
Frankfort cut the deficit to five twice with less than two minutes to play, but it was too late.
“You have to play really clean basketball down the stretch when you’re in the 40s,” Frankfort coach Dan Loney said. “One or two possessions go by without you getting a bucket, a four- to six-point lead starts to feel like a 10- to 12-point lead.”
Loney said the game met his expectations, knowing Buckley was a guard-heavy team. The Panthers’ game last Friday against Glen Lake ended in a similar barnburner fashion in a 40-39 loss. Frankfort (3-2, 2-2) has now lost two straight after a 3-0 start.
“Whoever makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win the game. That was not us tonight,” Loney said.
Panthers’ junior Nick Stevenson still led the game with a 21-point night followed by Ethan Evans’ 10 and Blake Miller’s nine.
Kaczanowski led a balanced Bears offense with 14 points, seven rebounds and a key steal in the fourth quarter. Jackson Kulawiak and Tyler Milarch both scored 11. Freshman point guard Landon Kulawiak scored eight points with four assists.
Before Monday’s pivotal league matchup, Buckley hosts a game against Kingsley on Friday, and Benzie travels to Frankfort the same night.
“There’s some good teams in the Northwest,” Milarch said. “It’s a tough conference. Anything can happen. We’re just going to keep doing what we do and working hard. Credit to all those other schools that do, too.”