The play seemed to be as poignant as it was aesthetically pleasing.
The John F. Kennedy boys’ basketball team had gotten out in transition, its two small guards, Jeffrey Arzu and Naquan Pierce, running the floor. Arzu led the break and was stopped at the foul line.
He stopped and in one motion flipped the ball behind his back on one bounce to Pierce, who caught, leaped, hung in the air and scored off the glass. He also was fouled – Lincoln star Lance Stephenson’s third foul – to cut what was once a 13-point lead to four.
Somehow, Kennedy’s afternoon went downhill from there. Lincoln outscored them 12-5 the remaining 3:49 of the first half, with Stephenson on the bench, cruising to a 78-56 victory in the PSAL Class AA city championship game at the Garden, the Railsplitters’ PSAL record fourth straight crown.
“When he went out of the ballgame, our intensity seemed to drop overall as a team,” coach Johnny Mathis said after Kennedy’s 19-game win streak was abruptly snapped. “At that time we relaxed.”
“I think,” he later joked, “it would’ve been better if he stayed in the game.”
“People were just overexcited,” Pierce said. “People tried to do things they usually don’t do instead of just playing team basketball.”
Kennedy never got its deficit closer than seven the rest of the way, failing to execute offensively and struggling to keep Lincoln off the glass. Pierce led the Knights with 17 points, Arzu added 12 points and six assists and Shea Spence tallied 11 and nine rebounds.
But the complimentary pieces – Jeffrey Short, Ross Vizcaino and Elijah Spear – players, who were so integral to the Knights’ season-long success, struggled. They shot a combined 2-of-17. The three symbolized JFK’s shooting woes. They shot 36 percent from the field and made just 6-of-19 3-pointers, a season-long strength, and were outrebounded, 45-38.
Short, who had broken out as a reliable double-digit scorer during Kennedy’s elongated winning streak, continued to slump. He sat for much of the game, benched early in the first quarter and didn’t return until late in the third. Mathis was unhappy with the junior forward, getting on him during one timeout during the fourth quarter.
“He played soft,” Mathis said. “First two plays they took the ball from him. He’s got to be stronger.”
The loss, however demoralizing, didn’t take anything away from Kennedy’s year. The Knights won Bronx AA and its’ first Bronx Borough crown since the postseason tournament began five years ago.
They also made it back to the Garden for the first time since 2005, all while dedicated every victory to former teammate Andre (Pop) Davidson, who fatally collapsed July 5, 2008 while playing a pick-up game in the South Bronx. The entire team wore white t-shirts in honor of Davidson, with Pop and is No. 23 written in red on the back.
“It was a great season; everybody really doubted us, they didn’t think we would get this far,” Arzu, the senior guard, said. “We all stuck together and worked hard. We’re still proud of each other.”
Pierce, the high-scoring junior, will return next year, along with Short, the talented yet enigmatic wing. He felt several of his teammates weren’t ready for the atmosphere of the game or the bright lights of the Garden.
“We didn’t play Kennedy basketball. We were too happy to be here,” he said, adding: “Hopefully we practice the way we did this year. We’ll be back.”