The tension is so thick on the dark bus ride from Hinkle Fieldhouse to the J.W. Marriott in Indianapolis on Jan. 4, it could be cut with a knife.
The next morning brings a similar air of discontent for the two-hour drive from Indianapolis to Cincinnati, in which the Seton Hall women’s basketball team travels past miles of farmland: dew still lining the ground, livestock grazing, and yet there is still a common thread, a staple with almost every house: a basketball hoop.
While the backdrop is far different from what Selena Philoxy, a Queens, N.Y. native, is used to, the 6-foot-1 forward is about to make this trip along the Rust Belt hers.
Once the ball starts dribbling on the campus of Xavier University, tensions melt away. Players fly up and down the Cintas Center practice court; offense moves purposefully and defense reacts alertly. It seems like the perfect training session, until a drop-off in focus towards the end.
Before the practice could be spoiled, though, the sophomore Philoxy steps up, hustles for a loose ball and – in doing so – catches the eyes of her coaches, who later sing her praises.
“I have to play a leader roll,” Philoxy said. “Having freshmen on our team, I can’t let them see me get down because we had a bad loss versus Butler. That’s something I cannot do…since I know those freshmen look up to me.
“And it’s like a domino effect, too, with me. I think once I have energy, the whole team brings up energy, and then we’re having a good practice.”
In one sense, Philoxy is more than comfortable in her own skin, with her lighthearted demeanor and New York City swagger. But, according to Philoxy, what fans have seen on the court over the last two years is, in another sense, a cocooned version of herself.
At South Shore High School, Philoxy won consecutive state titles with her sister, Destiney, who is now a freshman guard for UMass, averaging 8.3 points per game.
The two grew up in a single-parent household, with their mother, Martine, and older brother, Stanley. Stanley was the one who put the ball in their hands. Mom, at first, was not in favor of them playing.
“She wasn’t really into it because…she always felt like I would get hurt playing basketball,” Selena said.
But now, basketball is all ‘The Philoxy Sisters’ – as they were called throughout New York high school gyms – dream of doing. It may be naïve, idealistic even, but there is no wavering in either of their tones when describing their goals after college.
“I want to be an overseas basketball player, and I want to go to the WNBA,” Destiney said.
“I think about it…every day,” Selena said. “I want to go to The League, but, if not, I’m going to go overseas.”
The jump from college to pro is astronomical, though, and the two underclassmen may not grasp the full magnitude just yet. Going from South Shore – where they won multiple state titles – to Division I colleges – where wins and playing time come at a premium – was challenging in its own right.
Initially, Selena and Destiney imagined continuing their on-court partnership, remaining teammates somewhere in the vast Division I landscape of college basketball, but that all changed when Selena visited Seton Hall.
“I didn’t really go on any visits [outside of Seton Hall], because…I don’t even know why, I’m just weird like that,” Selena said.
“I just came here, like, (Assistant Coach) Marissa [Flagg], we were talking. She was at every game. Coach B was at every game. Calling me every day, making sure that, I knew that, they wanted me.”
Destiney, meanwhile, did not receive an offer from Seton Hall, and both were actually glad about that. The two agreed it was time for the world to recognize them not as ‘The Philoxy Sisters,’ but as Selena and Destiney. It was far from goodbye, though, but a confident ‘See you soon.’
“It was like, alright, we’ll just wait for each other through college and then come back together during…WNBA life,” Destiney said.
For Selena, committing to Seton Hall required a positional change, from wing – where she operated her first three years of high school – to the low post.
The shift was necessary for her adjustment, but she often ponders the future – her final two collegiate seasons and beyond – with the recurring thought that another radical change will be necessary to meet her sister on the court after graduation.
“I’ve got to get better,” Selena said. “I feel like, every day I’m getting better, but I feel like I’m not putting enough time in. I need to put a lot more time in. But, the day I actually commit to it, I’ll be ready to take the next step.”
That next step – one nearly impossible to carry out amid the revolving door of practices and games during a season – will be the step that determines whether or not her pro dream is possible.
“I want to be more, like a 3. I don’t like being a 5,” Philoxy said. “In high school, I was just going up and down and up and down.”
This season, Philoxy has taken baby steps toward that, emphasizing her mid-range shot in practice and working it into games when possible.
But, for now, Philoxy is best-suited in and around the paint, an area where she operates at an elite Big East level.
In a conference with no shortage of talented rebounders, Philoxy ranks top five in offensive rebounds, and fourth in minutes per offensive rebound – only A’riana Gray of Xavier, teammate Shadeen Samuels and Erika Davenport of Marquette grab offensive boards at a faster clip.
The day after her watershed moment on the Cintas Center practice court, Philoxy helped lift the Pirates through a carryover of shooting struggles from their loss two days prior. She faced the league-leading rebounder in Xavier’s Gray, and rose to the occasion with 21 boards.
Gray, however, had 22 rebounds; one more than Philoxy, the same margin that decided the overtime contest which gave Xavier its only Big East win.
The bleakness of two nights prior returned as the team bus rode through a gray-skied Cincinnati toward the bluegrass and sunset in Northern Kentucky. Behind layers of frustration, Seton Hall’s coaches had to still be proud – satisfaction that would never overcome their immediate frustration – of the transformation in Philoxy.
And Philoxy promises that was only the start of her personal growth as a collegiate player. For the remainder of this season, she will continue to be a menace in the middle, leading while also learning. Then, come the summer, her goal is to add another dimension to her game.
If she manages that, South Shore may prove to have not been a finale for ‘The Philoxy Sisters’, but the precursor to something far greater.
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.