LEE, Maine — The offense remains a work in progress for the Lee Academy boys basketball team.

But the defense has been fairly consistent since the outset of the season and proved crucial again Tuesday night as the Pandas outlasted Stearns of Millinocket 47-46 in in a battle of two of the top five teams in the Eastern Maine Class C Heal point ratings at Mallett Gymnasium.

Both teams are now 8-3.

Lee used active perimeter defense to erase a six-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, then used a blocked shot in the final seconds by 6-foot-8-inch center Brad Kong to avenge a 45-31 loss to the Minutemen at Millinocket on Jan. 7.

“Last time we played them we came out so lackadaisical and they beat us by a lot,” said Lee senior guard Julian Diggs, who scored a game-high 18 points for the Pandas. “We knew we did not want that to happen again. This is a big ‘W’ for our Heal points.”

Diggs was Lee’s defensive catalyst early in the final period, igniting a 9-0 run with a pair of steals after Stearns had extended its lead to 43-37 on a runner from the lane by Lucas McLain with 6:45 left in the game.

Diggs took his first steal of the sequence, coming as the Pandas applied trapping halfcourt pressure, directly in for a layup to cut the Stearns lead to 43-39. The second steal — on the Minutemen’s next possession — led to a 3-pointer by Diggs off a baseline inbounding pass by Jason Wu to draw Lee within 43-42 with 3:53 remaining.

“We were just trying to contain them at halfcourt,” said Diggs. “We’re not trying to get the steal, but we try to confuse the offense so if we can make them make a bad pass we can pick it off.”

A baseline drive by Devin Peters gave the Pandas a 44-43 edge with 3:04 left, and Diggs then drove into the lane and slipped a short pass to Kong for a layup to make it a three-point game.

But Stearns’ Kyle McVey countered with his fourth 3-pointer of the game to forge a 46-46 tie with 1:25 left before Lee’s Steven Ma made 1 of 2 from the line with 38.6 seconds remaining to provide the eventual margin of victory.

Stearns had the chance to score last after retaining possession of a held ball in the frontcourt with 7.4 seconds left.

Lee had two fouls to give before sending the Minutemen to the free-throw line, and committed one with 5.3 seconds left.

Stearns then got the ball to center Riley Whitney with the subsequent inbounding pass, but Kong blocked the close-range shot and the ball went out of bounds as time expired.

“We’ve been an excellent defensive team all year long,” said Lee coach Randy Harris. “Teams have been averaging (44.4) points a game against us, we just can’t score.”

“But I was real proud of the kids once we got down five with four or five minutes to go that they finally stopped the bleeding.”

Kong finished with eight points and nine rebounds for Lee. Six-foot-five forward Cherif Fall added seven points and 10 rebounds, while Peters scored six points and the 6-foot-6 Ma had five points and nine rebounds.

McLain scored 14 points to pace Stearns, while McVey had 12 points and eight rebounds and Seth Brown added 10 points.

Lee was able to dominate play near the basket, outrebounding the Minutemen 44-24.

The Pandas grabbed 10 rebounds in the game’s first six minutes alone while building leads of 7-0 and 9-2, but two drives by McLain rallied Stearns within 9-7 by the end of the period.

Diggs scored 11 points in the second quarter, starting the period with a steal and layup and adding two 3-pointers as Lee’s lead grew to as much as 24-10.

But Lee’s defense relaxed just enough for McVey to hit two 3-pointers in the late stages of the half, helping Stearns close within 32-24 by intermission.

Brown opened and closed out the third quarter with 3-pointers — Stearns was 7 of 11 from beyond the arc as a team — and McVey added another 3-pointer to go along with a pair of inside baskets by Whitney as the Minutemen outscored Lee 17-4 in the period to take a 41-36 lead into the game’s final eight minutes.

Stearns’ Kyle McVey countered with his fourth 3-pointer of the game to forge a 46-46 tie with 1:25 left before Steven Ma made 1 of 2 from the line with 38.6 seconds remaining to provide the eventual margin of victory.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...