LAKELAND — Amber Henson could smile Friday night, despite losing, because it was here.
At the state finals.
“Of course winning state would be the best way to end it,” the 6-foot-4 McDonald’s All-American said. “But to let us end it here is really just amazing.”
Bre Crum, her good friend and junior point guard, smiled too, fighting back tears knowing it was the last time she would play with the McDonald’s All-American.
But while Henson will go on to Duke and Crum has one more season of high school ball, the two players will be linked together forever.
They enrolled at Sickles on the same day three years ago, and were one of the area’s best 1-2 punches this season — both averaged more than 20 points — in leading the Gryphons to their first state semifinal appearance.
That ride came to an end at the Lakeland Center, as Winter Haven pulled away late to post a 50-42 win in the Class 5A state semifinals Friday.
It was tougher for the Blue Devils than many expected.
After Winter Haven pulled ahead 37-26 late in the third quarter, Sickles went on a 10-0 run, and Crum’s 3-pointer pulled the Gryphons within a point in the fourth quarter.
But a few minutes later, Winter Haven’s Erica Lanier made her own 3.
“We called a time out (at 37-26) and we told the kids we were not going down without a fight,” Gryphons coach Mark Key said. “The kids weren’t going to quit.”
They didn’t, but they also couldn’t hold onto the ball long enough to make another run.
Winter Haven had 17 steals, and forced Sickles into 16 second-half turnovers and 27 overall.
“Wow,” said Crum, whose mouth dropped open when told the number, the same reaction guard Sara Hartman and Henson had.
The Gryphons (19-10) survived a first half in which they shot 23 percent but only trailed 18-17 and had their chances late.
But they never got into an offensive flow, missing a slew of wide-open shots and layups, and made a bevy of passes to players in the wrong color uniform.
It wasn’t her best game, but Henson scored 20, pulled down 18 rebounds and blocked seven shots.
She made 8 of 21 shots; her teammates struggled, too, shooting just 8-for-29 from the field.
“I think we were nervous and thinking we had to score, score, score and not thinking about how we needed to run our offense,” Henson said. “The defense kept us in it.”
In the end, the rotation of Winter Haven guards, particularly Zeneka Willix (12 points, four steals) and Lanier (16 points, four steals) were too much for the Gryphons.
Winter Haven (25-5) has won all 19 playoff games it has played against Tampa Bay teams, including four region finals, three state semifinals and one state championship game.