BARRINGTON — Though he is quick to dispel such a notion, what is becoming the legendary coaching career of Mike Hart at St. Andrew’s School reached another victory milestone Monday afternoon, Jan. 27, as the Saints eventually rolled to a contentious 74-56 win over visiting Worcester Academy in a NEPSAC Class AA boys’ basketball outing at Sage Gymnasium.
St. Andrew’s trailed just once in the contest, 26-24 late in the first half, but the Hilltoppers still made the hosts work for much of the day. The game got chippy at times and the players were chirping a bit. Both coaches, Hart from St. Andrew’s and Worcester’s Jamie Sullivan, were hit with technical fouls.
The Saints, winners of 14 in a row, improved to 17-3 overall, 6-0 in Class AA and in a share of first place with Kimball Union. The Hilltoppers dropped to 8-11 overall, 4-5 in AA.
For Coach Hart, he now has a career record of 400-213 in his 20th season on the St. Andrew’s bench.
“The kids are buying into the system. It’s unselfishness,” Coach Hart said of the Saints’ recent run of form. “Guys are playing for St. Andrew’s and not themselves. Usually when you do that it not only works out for the team, but you personally. And the kids are believing in that. And when you can have that as a coach, things usually turn out well.”
Worcester’s 6-foot-1 senior point guard Devon Williams led all scorers with 32 points. The still as of yet unsigned college prospect almost single handedly kept the Hilltoppers in the contest, draining seven 3s and splitting the Saints’ defense with a dizzying array of offensive moves. Six-foot-10 center Matt Cimino, like Williams an unsigned senior being courted by the likes of Rhode Island among others, added 10, eight in the first half.
First-year Saint, 6’5″ junior forward Chancellor Ellis, of Queens, N.Y., paced St. Andrew’s with 18 points, including a one-man flurry of treys in the second half as the locals pull away for keeps. He drained three consecutive triples, one from either corner and another from the wing for good measure, as the Saints built a 52-36 lead with 11 minutes to play.
It was about that time, however, when things got heated between the sides. Tempers flared and a minor tangle on the opposite side of the floor brought Coach Hart off the bench. For the intrusion, the referee hit him with the T. Williams made one of the two free throws then scored eight more in what became an 11-0 Hilltoppers’ run that cut the Saints’ margin to just five with just over nine minutes to go.
“That’s my first one of the year and that’s my first one ever at home,” Coach Hart said of the technical. “In high school basketball if there’s a scuffle, the head coach is allowed to go out on the court. That’s the rule, and I went out on the court. And I got teed up, and I didn’t like that, and I told (the referee) it wasn’t right.”
Worcester would eventually get to within four (54-50) a little while later before St. Andrew’s senior and Smithfield product Tom Hunt found the range from deep. Hunt scored eight quick points in what turned into a 17-0 Saints’ spree. His two free throws after Coach Sullivan’s technical capped the game-winning spurt with 3:30 left.
Hunt finished with 16 points, joining Ellis, Notre Dame-bound Bonzie Colson Jr. (12) and 6’8″ senior center Andre Berry, of Malvern, N.Y., (11) in double figures.
“I was proud of the second half. We’re very explosive offensively when we share the ball. Guys were making shots. We weren’t doing that in the first half and we obviously did in the second. This league is too tough. You’ve got to defend, you’ve got to play physical and you’ve got to make shots. If you don’t do that, you’re in for a long night,” Coach Hart said.
It’s become a long and storied road to career win No. 400 for the Smithfield native at the Barrington private school, which before he and others came to it in the mid-1990s was known mostly as a place of last resort for troubled rich kids, those who couldn’t cut it at other, perceived more prestigious places.
St. Andrew’s isn’t viewed that way anymore, thanks in large part to the profile of the Varsity I basketball program Coach Hart basically built from scratch.
“I’m really proud of the community because when I first came here the school was in a different spot than it is now,” he explained. “And basketball, just like the arts, just like soccer and everything else, just kind of stepped up.
“A lot of that has to do with (St. Andrew’s head master) John Martin. Everyone involved has been great. The kids worked hard. For a small school I’m really amazed at what we’re doing, and I think it’s going to continue. The kids just have to keep buying into St. Andrew’s. I’m really proud of all the assistant coaches, all the players and parents we’ve had along the way, but especially the kids.”
A trusted friend
Coach Hart’s most valued assistant, and more importantly friend, throughout his tenure has been trusted aide John O’Shea. The two have known each other since their days playing for another local coaching legend, Vin Cullen, at the Community College of Rhode Island.
They went on to complete their collegiate careers at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. And for the last 16 years, the 6’10 O’Shea and the 5’9″ Hart have formed a very successful “Mutt and Jeff” act all over New England.
The duo has helped send 17 players to Division I college programs and over 50 others have played in either D-II or D-II. Ninety-five percent have earned their college diplomas. Two former Saints, Syracuse standouts Demetris Nichols and Michael Carter-Williams, reached the NBA. Coach Hart’s teams have appeared in eight NEPSAC class championship games and has won six titles. Coach O’Shea has been there for just about all of it.
“We’ve had various guys throughout the years besides Coach O’Shea and myself and I really appreciate what they did for us,” Coach Hart said. “But obviously John and I compliment each other. We put our friendship aside for the benefit of the kids during the game, and it works. As long as we keep doing it that way, it will continue to work.”
Finding a home
Things have worked out especially well in recent seasons for St. Andrew’s, which has finally found a true home in NEPSAC’s multi-class structure. Too big for Class E, where Coach Hart and St. Andrew’s won the first two of their titles, and too good for Class B, where they’ve won the other four, the Saints are now comfortably among like-minded and sized programs.
“I refer to us as the ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ because no league wants us because we have something wrong with us. We’re either too small a school and the big schools don’t want us. Or basketball is too strong here, so they want us to play up,” Coach Hart added. “That’s why I’m so happy with Class AA. It’s a bunch of schools that didn’t really fit in Class A through D. We’ve had a great two-and-a-half-years so far with the league. That last two years, we’ve had four different teams in the championship game, so the balance is incredible.”
Assist from a “Townie”
It’s incredible to think of where the St. Andrew’s program has come over the last 20 years under Coach Hart’s direction. And it’s difficult to think he and the Saints would be where they are if not for one local product, specifically: Tony Robertson.
It was the decision of the East Providence resident to attend St. Andrew’s back in 1997 that sparked the Saints eventual rise up the New England prep school ladder.
“He demystified a lot of things about the school by coming here,” Coach Hart said of Robertson, who would lead the Saints to consecutive Class E titles in 1998 and ’99, star at Connecticut then play professionally overseas.
“He came at right around the same time as John Martin got here, and the perception changed,” Coach Hart continued. “Tony was the kid that made it cool to come here. He took a chance. And we took a chance on him, and I think that he appreciated that. He really made us a legit school that kids from Rhode Island and then nationally could look at as an option to come here and become a student athlete. Without him and John Martin I don’t think we’d be standing here today.”
Another East Providence product, 6’9″ sophomore forward Terrell Brown, is expected to be a cornerstone for near future St. Andrew’s teams. Still developing both his game and his physique, Brown, the grandson of former EPHS and URI stand Vic Soares, is on his way to reaching his potential.
“He’s progressing,” Coach Hart said of Brown. “Terrell is a normal sophomore in high school that happens to be 6-foot-9 and playing at a very high level. He’s going to be a big time player. We’re really proud of where he is now. He’s getting quicker and stronger. And I think the rest of this year and the next two years you’re going to see a high major player.
“He does a lot of good things with the ball and he plays well defensively. He should be fine if he keeps working hard. He’s already got a ton of recruiting going on. The Friars and the Rams (Providence College and Rhode Island), locally, have already expressed interest. He’s going to be a foundation of our team the next couple years.”
A few years from now, Coach Hart should be well on his way towards milestone win No. 500. Just 47, he and Coach O’Shea expect to be around St. Andrew’s for quite a while if their message and methods continue to resonate.
“I’m just really proud of the kids who come through the program,” Coach Hart concluded. “A lot of them have become lawyers, teachers, they have college degrees and they’re employed, and I’m very proud of them. And we’re going to continue in that way. Kids are going to come here, and basketball is good, but you’ve got to buy into the school and the community. And I think if we continue to do that, we’re going to have a lot more talented kids come here.