CLEARWATER — It's hard to tell who was happier following Sickles' Class 5A region final victory over Clearwater on Saturday night — coach Mark Key or star Amber Henson.
Both ran around after the final buzzer looking for someone's arms to jump into. Eventually, they found each other.
After failing to meet expectations the past two seasons, Key and 6-foot-4 All-American Henson are heading to Lakeland for the state semifinals after a 53-40 win over the Tornadoes.
The Gryphons (19-10) lost in the region semifinals in 2009 and the region finals last year. They will take on Winter Haven on Friday in their first trip to state.
"This is the moment I've been waiting for my whole high school career," said Henson, who finished with a game-high 14 points and five assists.
As they did in the region semis, the Gryphons used a big second quarter for the second straight game, opening a 23-12 halftime lead, then fending off two furious Tornado rallies.
Clearwater (25-5) had fits against Sickles' 3-2 zone.
With Henson and Diasha Whiten playing aggressively to take away the 3-point shot, the middle was open but the Tornadoes struggled to get the ball inside, and when they did they missed too many layups.
The Tornadoes went eight minutes without a basket over the first and second quarters, and Sickles went on a 14-2 run to take the lead for good.
"Those were two of our worst quarters (of the year). It just seemed we were out of synch, no doubt about it," Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt said.
The Gryphons opened a 31-18 lead midway through the third quarter. But once Clearwater was able to turn Sickles over and get its running game going, it got back in the game with an 11-0 run. But Bre Crum converted a steal to stem the tide, and Henson had a rebound, layup and block on consecutive series and the Gryphons answered with a 13-0 run.
"The best way to end Amber's senior season is in Lakeland," said Crum, who had 12 points. "It feels great. I was nervous the whole game."
Alex Alford led Clearwater with 11 points; Tyra Bolden had nine.