Without hesitation, Sickles coach Mark Key says he believes he has Hillsborough County's top two players. "We're talking two Division I kids," Key said Wednesday after Sickles' 72-56 win over Tampa Bay Tech. "They could be two of the better kids in our classification." And it's difficult to argue. There's no doubt that two-time Parade All-American Amber Henson, a 6-foot-4 center who will play at Duke next year, is one. And junior point guard Bre Crum spent most of the season as the county's leading scorer. For the pair, who are in their third season playing together, this postseason is their last chance to take Sickles to its first state tournament — and last opportunity to play for a state title.
But as good as Henson and Crum are — the two missed a combined 18 games due to injuries this season — the Gryphons (15-9) will go only as far as their supporting cast takes them, Key said.
"I think we're a lot better because we've got some young kids who have really showed up," Key said. "They've learned they've got to play. We told the kids all year long that if were going to make a run, they all had to fit in. And that's one of the things we've worked on."
Henson, who is averaging 19.7 points, 13.6 rebounds and 7.3 blocks, has missed 12 games — most of November and December — due to complications from her offseason knee surgery. Crum missed six games with an ankle injury and played in several games when Key said she was maybe 50 percent.
Their absence was obvious. Mid December was the low point — a three-point loss to Chamberlain, followed by a 37-point loss to Freedom, which cost Sickles the No. 1 seed in this week's Class 5A-9 district tournament.
"Oh my God, it was hard to watch, especially when we were losing," Crum said. "Because they wouldn't know what to do and you'd be trying to coach them up, and when you see them not execute, it was just hard to watch your team like that.
Said Henson: "I was the biggest cheerleader. Bre can tell you that. I hated watching it, but I had to stay positive."
Henson and Crum still have their moments of frustration when a pass goes through the hands of a teammate or an easy layup is missed. But out of their absence emerged a third scoring threat in sophomore Sara Hartman, a former perimeter role player who held the team together when the stars were out.
"We knew she was going to be good, but she's done things this year we didn't expect," Key said. "She's been unreal."
"I definitely think we're better because of it," said Hartman, who scored 32 against Alonso earlier this season. "We had to step up and do everything we could to win. And now with them back, it's so much easier."
After advancing to the region semifinals two years ago, and losing to Boca Ciega in the region final last season, anything but a trip to state would be a disappointment.
"I think it's good and bad, because the deeper we go, people are going to think that if they get the two of us out of the game, they've got the game," Crum said. "That's when it's going to get a little bit harder and when everyone else is going to have to step up.
"I think we're getting better as the season goes on with that. Sara's been doing a good job of that. I think she'll spread a lot of people out."
Admission: $5 per session
6A-8 at Alonso
Tuesday: Alonso (4) vs. Bloomingdale (5), 7 p.m.; Wednesday: Wharton (2) vs. Brandon (3), 6; Plant (1) vs. Alonso/Bloomingdale winner, 7:30; Friday: final, 7
5A-9 at Gaither
Tuesday: Chamberlain (3) vs. King (6), 6; Hillsborough (4) vs. Gaither (5), 8; Wednesday: Sickles (2) vs. Chamberlain/King winner, 6; Freedom (1) vs. Hillsborough/Gaither winner, 8; Friday: final, 7
5A-8 at Durant
Tuesday: Armwood (4) vs. East Bay (5), 5; Tampa Bay Tech (2) vs. Plant City (7), 6:30; Durant (3) vs. Newsome (6), 8; Thursday: Riverview (1) vs. Armwood/East Bay winner, 6; TBT/Plant City winner vs. Durant/Newsome winner, 7:30; Friday: final, 7
4A-9 at Jefferson
Tuesday: Strawberry Crest (4) vs. Blake (5), 6; Jefferson (1) vs. Lennard (8), 7:30; Wednesday: Steinbrenner (3) vs. Robinson (6), 6; Spoto (2) vs. Middleton (7), 7:30; Friday: Steinbrenner/Robinson winner vs. Spoto/Middleton winner, 6; Jefferson/Lennard winner vs. Strawberry Crest/Blake winner, 7:30; Saturday: final, 7
3A-10 at Berkeley Prep
Tuesday: Berkeley Prep (4) vs. Clearwater Central Catholic (5), 7; Thursday: St. Petersburg Catholic (2) vs. Academy of the Holy Names (3), 6; Tampa Catholic (1) vs. Berkeley Prep/CCC winner, 7:30; Saturday: final, 7
2A-10 at Calvary Christian
Thursday: Tampa Prep (4) vs. Bishop McLaughlin (5), 7; Friday: Brooks-DeBartolo (2) vs. Calvary Christian (3), 6; Indian Rocks Christian (1) vs. Tampa Prep/Bishop McLaughlin winner, 7:30; Saturday: final, 7
A-9 at Tampa Bay Christian
Tuesday: Lakeside Christian (4) vs. Tampa Bay Christian (5), 5:30; Cambridge (3) vs. Canterbury (6), 7; Friday: Academy at the Lakes (2) vs. Cambridge/Canterbury winner, 5:30; Keswick Christian (1) vs. Lakeside Christian/Tampa Bay Christian winner, 7; Saturday: final, 7
A-8 at Seffner Christian
Tuesday: Citrus Park Christian (4) vs. Bayshore Christian (5), 6; Thursday: Bradenton Christian (2) vs. Hernando Christian (3), 5; Seffner Christian (1) vs. Citrus Park Christian/Bayshore Christian winner, 7; Saturday: final, 7
Other teams to watch
Jefferson (22-1): The Dragons are indisputably the county's top team. With wins over Tampa Bay Tech, Tampa Catholic, Sickles (twice) and Plant, Jefferson has beaten all of its top county opponents under coach Jim Baxter, a former college women's assistant and boys high school coach coaching high school girls for the first time.
Tampa Catholic (19-4): The Crusaders are the county's hottest team, entering the postseason on a 16-game winning streak. Tampa Catholic hasn't lost since Dec. 4, and recent wins over St. Petersburg Catholic and Sickles have the Crusaders' confidence riding high.
Riverview (23-2): The top-seeded Sharks have flown under the radar most of the season, but when they handed district foe Tampa Bay Tech a 13-point loss in mid December, you had to take notice. Riverview heads into the postseason having won 17 of its past 18 games.
Plant (18-5): Another team that's quietly productive, the Panthers went 8-0 in district play. They're battle-tested with a tough non-district schedule — all five losses came to district No. 1 or 2 seeds.
Tampa Bay Tech (17-7): The Titans might have one of the most talented all-around teams and one of the deepest. They've played a tough schedule with two state showcases on their slate. But they'll have to rebound from recent losses to Durant and Sickles.
Seffner Christian (16-7): The Crusaders will likely get a fight from No. 2 seed Bradenton Christian in the district final, but Seffner, led by Wharton transfer Tesha Hanson (24.0 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game) could make a deep postseason run.