Can Phoenix Rise Again After a Rough Start?

After a slow, 5-5 start, junior Talia Kirshenbaum’s rebounding presence could be what it takes to push the Phoenix back into contention.

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When I spoke to senior and co-captain Shannon Lau of the Stuyvesant Phoenix girls’ basketball team back in December, she exuded an infectious hope. “I truly think we have what it takes to reclaim first in our division,” said Lau, as she meticulously detailed the steps that the team planned to take after falling out of first place in the Manhattan A South Division for the first time in three years. Lau sold me on her optimism, citing improvements like head coach Vincent Miller’s new free throw regimen, involving 20-30 free-throws per practice and sprints after missed ones. It seemed as though the Phoenix had put in place an aggressive plan to rectify their woes at the stripe that had plagued them so severely a year ago.

Unfortunately, 10 games in, the Phoenix’s season has not treated them kindly. Even with a decisive 67-55 victory against Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, the Phoenix have already matched last season’s loss total (five) and have not improved very much at all at the free throw line. Last year, just five players shot over 50 percent on free throws (Lau, senior and co-captain Delaney Demark and juniors Maya Zabari, Ally Archer, and Ruby Gary). Of the five, though, only Lau and Archer received what could be considered substantial reps. This year, that figure is even lower. Zabari and Gary are no longer on the team, and only two players (Lau and junior guard Britni Canale) are shooting over 50 percent on free throws. Considering that Canale has only shot four total free throws, Lau is the only player with free throw shooting success over an extensive span. Not everyone on the team, however, sees free throw shooting as being as pernicious as it may seem. “As a whole, free throw shooting isn’t a very prominent issue, but we could always do better,” Demark said. The team has lost all five games by more than five points, suggesting that the Phoenix slow start could be attributed to something deeper—for instance, a lack of a dominating rebounding presence.

In the 2016-2017 season, the Phoenix were defined by a frontcourt that dominated the glass. Archer, at center, and junior power forward Talia Kirshenbaum combined for nearly 20 rebounds each game. But Kirshenbaum missed the first eight games of this season while she was at the Mountain School, hurting the team’s rebounding prowess. Archer’s production has increased (12.2 rebounds per game), and the team has enjoyed an unprecedented breakout performance by sophomore Eve Wening, who raised her rebounding numbers by nearly five rebounds per game from a season ago, but they have not matched last year’s totals.

Kirshenbaum returned to the team in mid-January in thunderous fashion. Albeit in a minuscule sample size, she has averaged 14 rebounds per game, the highest by any Phoenix over the past four years. It has had a profound impact on the rest of the team, which has been markedly more competitive as of late. The dominant 67-55 win came against a respectable Bayard Rustin team which has hovered around .500 all season, and the 54-48 loss to Graphics Campus came against a high-powered, 9-2 team whose only losses came at the hands of 10-2 Millennium High School and undefeated Lab Museum United. Furthermore, according to Demark, the loss to Graphics Campus might have been close enough for free throw shooting to have played a role: “In Monday’s game against Graphics, free throw shooting did prove to be a bit of an issue, but that’s really the only instance this season in which this significantly impacted the outcome of the game,” Demark said. It’s safe to say that Kirshenbaum’s return has been felt by everyone on Stuyvesant’s roster. “What Talia’s doing on this team is crazy,” Lau said.

Ultimately, Kirshenbaum’s return could be what revitalizes the Phoenix back into championship contention. The three-headed monster of Kirshenbaum and Archer both potentially putting up double-digit rebounds and Wening coming off the wing with countless more could be a fearsome mismatch going forward, and this could spark a streak of success into February. “I’m confident that we can bring this perseverance across the remainder of the season,” Lau said.

In the end, though, only time will tell how dramatic such a turnaround will be. In the next seven games, the Phoenix play just two teams with winning records: Millennium High School and Seward Park Campus. If they can sweep the other five games, they should cruise into the playoffs. However, if they slip up, it could spell a low seed in the playoffs, and perhaps an early ticket home.