TAMPA — Aside from the prodigious basketball skills that have her an All-American at 16, the things that stand out about Sickles junior Amber Henson are her easy smile and infectious laugh.
And the way she blushes when Sickles boys basketball coach Renaldo Garcia walks by and says, "Go Gators" to Henson, one of the nation's top junior recruits. It's the former UF player's friendly way of nudging her to Gainesville.
"He does it every day," Henson says, laughing.
As easygoing as Henson is, her grasp of playing a more physical game this season has Sickles on its deepest postseason path in school history, and one win from the Gryphons' first state tournament.
Sickles (25-3) faces cross-the-bay power Boca Ciega (28-1), winner of 21 straight, in tonight's Class 5A region final. The winner advances to Wednesday's state semifinals at the Lakeland Center.
The 6-foot-4 Henson, who was named a Parade All-America fourth-team selection last year as a sophomore, plays the post because of her height, but this season, she has come into her own as a post player.
She said it's something her father, Matt, a former college player at Norfolk State, had been harping on for years — that combining her natural talent with a killer instinct creates a more complete player.
"Over the summer I spent more time in the weight room than in the gym, which really helped my game," Henson said. "… I started to notice I was getting more and-ones. That was the biggest factor, being able to finish with contact."
Gryphons coach Mark Key has noticed. Henson heads into tonight's game averaging 23.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 5.1 blocks. She's averaging 28.5 points in two region tournament games.
"She's a big-time player and in our big games she's played big," Key said.
Both Henson and Key said that after moving to Tampa from Texas two summers ago, Henson is more comfortable with her role on the team. She's not afraid to be aggressive on the court and a leader off it.
"When I first got here, I had to kind of feel my way into it and see where I fit in," Henson said. "Now, I've become more of a leader so I can get on someone without them without them saying, 'Oh, here's this new girl.' "
This year, with a supporting cast that includes blossoming sophomores Bre Crum and Rachel Smith and stabilizing seniors Erica Early and Lindsey Botts, it has translated into Sickles' best season yet.
"We've really matured this year, we're taking better shots, we know how to finish games now," Henson said. "We just know how to win."
Henson, rated the fourth-best junior in the nation by ESPNU, said she plans to make her college decision this spring but her focus is on Lakeland.
"That would be like a dream come true right now," she said. "I could care less about the points and the awards and everything. My main goal right now is helping my team to states."