BY Jay N. Miller
EASTON - It was more than four years ago when two standout high school basketball players were considering their college options.
There was the versatile 6-foot-1 guard from Acton and the 6-foot-5 smooth forward from Fayetteville, N.Y.
If neither one was exactly a scoring machine sifting through dozens of Div. 1 offers, both had a variety of talents, did the little things coaches look for and, most importantly, were defensive demons.
Four years later, Stonehill College guard Andre Tongo and forward Patrick Lee are capping off outstanding careers by leading the Warriors basketball squad into this week's Elite Eight of the NCAA Div. 2 men's basketball tourney at Northern Kentucky University where they will open against against West Liberty on Wednesday.
Lee, the reigning Northeast-10 Defensive Player of the Year, is one of those players who sneak up on opponents. It never seems like he's doing anything flashy but when the stat sheet arrives he's invariably among the leaders in points and rebounds.
Lee has averaged almost nine rebounds and 10.9 points this season and has provided a healthy number of blocked shots and steals.
Tongo ability to hit the outside shot, handle the ball and drive the lane make him the Skyhawks' most versatile guard to go with his defensive prowess. Tongo is averaging 12.8 points on .404 shooting from the floor, including 68 3-pointers at a .391 clip), while he has 73 percent of his free throws and leads Stonehill in steals.
Both seniors, who have been models of consistency and poise, reflect on their Stonehill careers with pride in having gone 91-30 in their four years together, which is the best four-year won-lost record of any Stonehill group.
"I did have multiple options coming out of high school," Lee said. "I'm very happy I chose Stonehill, but not just for basketball. I love the community here, the academics and, as for the basketball, we work so hard we expect to win. That's the attitude I wanted, and that's how we keep it going."
"I was looking at a few colleges," said Tongo, "but when I came here for my visit, I knew this was the place for me. It's a beautiful campus, and the community feeling is strong, and then the basketball team seemed more like a brotherhood.
"The team welcomed me immediately on that visit and they all seemed to be friends with each other, which was a very appealing aspect for me.
"Obviously, the academics are outstanding, and that's a big factor for your choice too, but we've always had such great team chemistry here – all the guys are very close – that I have to believe that's a huge factor in our success."
"And that's what really sold me on this school right away."
As freshmen, both recruits had to adjust from their high school teams' style to the basketball favored by Skyhawks coach David McLaughlin.
"I think the style I played changed a bit, but the principles were the same," said Lee. "Defense-first is the way of doing things, and we try to adjust to the personnel that every opponent has.
"Sometimes they may be more shooters, or more drivers, for instance, and our approach is to take them out of their game, away from what they do best. On the offensive side, we try to take what they give us and capitalize on it. From my freshman year, I'd say that general approach has not changed."
Lee agreed that defense has been McLaughlin's priority.
"Playing defense like this does require a lot of conditioning, so that we can keep that pressure on our opponents," Lee said. "Coach has us running all the time, and that element is one of the toughest things."
Tongo points out that McLaughlin's directive to his players is to make other teams do what the Skyhawks want them to do.
"If that means slow the tempo, like we will try to do against West Liberty, that's what we do," Tongo said. "Basically, we want to make them work hard for everything they get. Offensively, we try to play our game."
"Coach always stresses being tough-minded, and playing together," Tongo noted. "And in every drill and practice situation, he wants you to try and dominate that drill. If you take that approach to practice you will make yourself and your teammates better. And when it comes to games and tight situations there, it's that much easier for you to make that point, or make that defensive stop."
Not everyone expected the Skyhawks to be so successful this season. Coming off another 20-win campaign, they had also graduated their three top scorers and rebounders, two league all stars, and last season's NE-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
The chore of integrating those two into the starting lineup was not instant. Just past the season's midway point, Stonehill stood at 12-7, but the Skyhawks went on a second-half run to tied for second in the conference, and then blazed their way to the NE-10 Tournament title, as well as the Div. 2 2 East Regional crown, to give them a nine-game winning streak.
"Losing the guys we did, we certainly did need someone to step in this year," Tongo said. "We were lucky both those guys were a great fit. The first two weeks of preseason was like basketball boot camp for those guys, to see how well we could play together with them, and learning their strengths and weaknesses."
"It took a little while to completely gel, but each game, we were getting better. We were understanding each other better, knowing each other's games better. Now, we are clicking really well together and it seems like they've been here since my freshman year. We are playing, right now, the best we've played as a team all year."
"That's what our preseason was this year," Lee agreed, "getting used to playing with those new guys. What made it easier was that they both played very well. I don't think either one of them had to change their style very much, and we didn't have to change much to adjust to them."
"As the season has gone along, they have fit in very well," Lee agreed. "As a team overall, we have gotten stronger as the season goes along, and I think we really hit a peak in the NE-10 tournament. A big part of that is simply that our confidence is so high."
The Skyhawks' sojourn to Kentucky won't be without its hurdles, first among them being West Liberty at 32-2 and champion of the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Scouting reports have the Hilltoppers as a fast-paced, run-and-gun outfit that regularly scores over 100 points a game.
"It sounds like West Liberty's style is a little different from what we've been seeing," said Lee. "We are going to try and make them play our style, and not get caught up in trying to play their pace.
"It's going to be a challenge for our defense, but we're working in practice on how to deal with a team like that."
"What we've been watching on film is a faster, very uptempo game," Tongo noted. "There are some thing we want to do, like slow them down and force them into turnovers, and not let them get quick shots."
We want to force them into our game, and this one will probably come down to who is able to play their own game better."
Four years after first stepping onto the Stonehill campus, Tongo and Lee know they made a good decision.
"I definitely feel I made the right choice," said Lee. "From Day One to right now, I feel like I've been able to do just what I wanted to do as a college basketball player, and gotten just what I wanted as a total college experience."
"And I've met and become friends with some great kids who've gone through the same experiences with me."
"Over the past two years," Tongo said, "I've been able to play a key role, so I feel like my basketball knowledge really developed."
"The college, the classes and the community have all been a really positive influence, which we won't ever forget. "Looking back, the accomplishments we achieved as a team – all the wins, the conference championship, and now the NCAA Regional – really mean a lot. Our group setting a record for 91 wins–and counting? That's something we'll look back on, proudly, for years."