NORTH TONAWANDA — Since a 52-51 buzzer-beating overtime loss against rival Niagara Wheatfield last Tuesday, the North Tonawanda boys basketball team has been idle.
Yet one week later, there’s a sense of confidence around the Lumberyard as the final act of the regular season approaches.
The “never give up” mentality starts with the leadership of senior captain and lone four-year player Patrick McNeill.
“We’ve definitely seen that we’re capable this year to be one of the best teams,” McNeill said, who was part of NT’s sectional runner-up team in the 2019-20 campaign as a freshman. “It’s just putting four quarters together… I think every game this year, we’ve had a lead in the second half… (We) just got to start finishing some of those league games.”
As of Monday, the Lumberjacks are 10-6 on the season and 4-6 in Niagara Frontier League play and have won seven of their last nine contests dating back to a non-league 59-51 victory against Olean on Jan. 6. From McNeill’s point of view, the team’s approach on both ends of the floor has changed over the last month.
“We definitely have started shooting the ball a lot better, as a team,” McNeill said, who is scoring a team-high 16.9 points per game along with 9.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks per game. “That starts in practice. We’ve been more engaged, locked in, shooting the ball well… and that’s translated on the court, for sure, over the last month.”
After entering the varsity level as a key reserve for the Lumberjacks his freshman year, McNeill took another step as a sophomore, averaging 10.8 points and 7.8 rebounds on a team that also included top threats Wally Wisniewski and now Canisius guard Luke Granto. And, while he was averaging 14.0 points per game through NT’s first seven games of last season, McNeil, who suffered a knee injury in Summer 2021, didn’t feel fully healthy and was sidelined for the rest of his junior campaign.
While sitting on the bench as his team finished with an 8-13 overall record, McNeill was able to see the game from a whole new perspective, making him even hungrier to succeed this winter. McNeill wasn’t entirely sure how his body was going to respond until, during one of the first days of practice, he leaped for a two-handed slam dunk. It was the signal he needed before he could fully engage again — and take what he learned last year with him.
“It definitely has helped me slow the game down playing this year,” McNeill said, who also underwent physical therapy at UB Orthopedics last year. “Seeing… where the movements are, especially defensively, you can really see where guys move on those spots, where the ball goes, especially with playing zone, you guys got to all work together. I think that’s definitely helped.”
Since his return, McNeill has also finished in double-figure scoring 15 times, including in each of the last 12 contests. Noting shooting with size and a “good” basketball IQ as his biggest strengths, don’t be fooled by McNeill’s range either.
With a height of 6-foot-5, McNeill has evolved into a threat from beyond the arc, knocking down a team-high 35 3-pointers, as of Monday. This aspect of his game developed when he was younger and played one-on-one against oldest brother, Adam, a former NT center and 2015 graduate who stands at 7-foot-1.
“I wasn’t going to score inside,” Patrick said of those childhood games. “So, I give credit to playing against older brothers my whole life. That was the only way I was gonna score.”
More importantly, McNeill has provided a strong presence inside the NT locker room, leading by his actions instead of his words. But like all great players do, McNeill had to adapt this season and start speaking up in the locker room. Changing his style into a more vocal presence was “uncomfortable” at first, McNeill said, especially as most of his teammates are also his close friends but knew that’s the role the team needed him to serve.
“You gotta be able to step on people’s toes sometimes to get the best out of them,” McNeill said.
NT head coach Ryan Mountain said having McNeill back in the lineup and in the locker room has been a game-changer, describing him as a “action first, talk second leader.”
“Pat gives us belief that success is going to be inevitable,” said Mountain. “He’s a reliable teammate… He understands right way leadership… He accepts reality and he really comes every day to improve.”
Basketball is in the blood of the McNeill family. His parents, Jill and Jim, excelled on the hardwood at Tonawanda High School. Oldest brother Adam was a part of NT’s sectional Class A-1 semifinalist teams in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. The second oldest sibling, Kyle, contributed to NT’s historic 2016-17 team that won its first sectional title since 1961 and advanced to the Far West Regionals for the first time ever and later became a starter as a senior the following year, and older sister, Emily, was a major contributor for NT girls basketball and volleyball. Watching his older siblings, especially his brothers, play in the NT colors made young Patrick want to play too.
“I used to hate it, but now, I look back and see how great it was to be the youngest,” McNeill said. “They pushed me and showed me the right things to do (and) wrong things to do, and we’re very close.”
In April 2021, Jim passed away after being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. But Patrick said he will always remember how supportive his father was, especially during those challenging times. Jim watched every live stream and even found the strength to attend Emily’s Senior Night basketball game, knowing it would make her entire day. To this day, Patrick has received comparisons to how his father treated others and his mannerisms, which he says, is “just a great feeling.”
“Just a model person that we all looked up to,” he said. “He was a lending hand, was ready to help anyone anytime, and just never put himself first… He’s easily the best person I’ve ever met or talked to.”
Mountain still remembers the last time he saw the elder McNeill before his passing. Though sick, Mountain said, his friend’s spirit was healthy, asking questions about his family and everything else. Mountain said this trait has passed onto Patrick.
“He’s genuinely concerned with everyone else and has a selfless persona about him,” Mountain said. “And, he lights up a room, just like Dad did.”
As the postseason nears, young Patrick hopes the Lumberjacks return to Buffalo State and doesn’t plan to waiver from his father’s biggest piece of advice: “Have fun.”
“That was his biggest thing,” McNeill said. “You got to enjoy it. If you’re not enjoying it, why are you doing it?”
North Tonawanda resumes its season Tuesday night at Kenmore West followed by home contests against both Lockport (Feb. 10) and Lancaster (Feb. 17).