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TAMPA — She didn’t carry her team here, as many expected she would from the second she set foot on the Sickles campus.
It didn’t work.
Here’s what did: a little cajoling. Some poking, prodding and pushing.
Nope, when the Gryphons make their first appearance at the girls basketball state semifinals Friday night in Lakeland, they won’t arrive on Amber Henson’s back.
They’ll walk in beside her.
“One kid doesn’t win a state championship,” Sickles coach Mark Key said. “But one kid puts you in a great situation.”
• • •
Henson is 6 feet 4 inches of untapped and immensely promising basketball potential, a nationally-ranked high school McDonald’s
All-American boasting a scholarship to Duke.
So naturally, from the time she can remember, she was expected to not only excel on the court, but win, too.
Youth leagues, AAU ball, high school — win, win, win.
After two seasons of prep playoff losses, and a slow start to her senior season, Henson’s high school career was barreling toward a wall of unmet expectations.
“I guess the biggest knock on me was people would say, ‘Oh, Amber is good but she won’t lead her team to the state championship,’ ” Henson said.
Early on, it looked like people would keep knocking.
The Gryphons got off to a slow start as Henson rehabbed from a knee injury, and the team adapted to a new lineup.
They lost to all the good teams they played, and only beat the lesser foes. Coming back from the holidays, Sickles was 8-8 and not until Jan. 14 able to post a win over a team that would finish above .500.
Henson wasn’t quite healthy, point guard Bre Crum was hobbled, and Lakeland was a million miles away.
“It was tough, we just didn’t have any chemistry,” Key said. “But after we took Jefferson to overtime (in December) before losing, I kind of felt that if we could just get everyone healthy, maybe we could get a shot at this.”
Playing Crum and Henson with freshmen and sophomores, Key hoped for the best by the district tournament.
Slowly, the Gryphons rounded into form.
• • •
Henson joined a team in 2008 that was 25-3 the previous season, the top four scorers had all graduated and expectations were unrealistically high.
Last year, a more experienced Gryphons team was favored to make it to state but had a number of personality issues punctuated by a poor performance in the region final, leading to a handful of defections.
The rebuilding began with sophomores Sara Hartman and Diasha Whiten and freshman Tyeshia Thomas.
A more aggressive Crum nearly doubled her scoring average while raising her assists average.
Henson was, well, Henson, dominant but not in the ways you might think.
When the Gryphons were trying to hold off a furious Clearwater rally Saturday to get to Lakeland, it wasn’t Henson’s show — she was merely the director.
She had a rebound, block and steal on consecutive possessions that led to baskets, and she passed out of the double team to Thomas for two wide open lay-ups.
Meanwhile, Hartman hit a key 3-pointer and found Whiten for an easy basket. And Crum scored off her own steal, dished to Thomas for a basket and made both her free throws.
Of the 20 points Sickles scored in the biggest quarter of the season, Henson had two of them, but contributed to most of them.
In the best game of Henson’s prep career, she scored 14 points.
“It really means a lot to win that game,” she said. “It’s kind of that one thing I haven’t gotten a chance to experience, and I’m so proud of my teammates. I just can’t imagine it ending any other way.”
Henson may not get her state title with a tradition-rich Winter Haven the first major obstacle Friday, but she will end her career where most of us expected her to play before she graduated.
And what she may remember most is the Gryphons weren’t carried out of Clearwater’s gymnasium on her back last week. They left the same way they will walk in to the Lakeland Center today.