Every time Tamara Henshaw jumps up to fight for a rebound, she knows she’s at a disadvantage.
Standing at 6-foot-1, the USF forward is often several inches shorter than the opponents she fiercely battles with.
But as she’s proven time and time again throughout her freshman season, Henshaw is up to the challenge.
“I don’t use me being undersized as something that holds me back from anything,” Henshaw said. “I have to fight for everything, and I knew that coming in to this. I knew I was going to be undersized and playing against juniors and seniors in college.
“It doesn’t matter because you have to fight, that’s what you have to do. It doesn’t matter who you are or how big you are, you have to fight.”
That fight Henshaw brings each night she plays for USF women’s basketball is something that’s quickly endeared her among teammates and fans.
The lone freshman starter, Henshaw has averaged 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 points on a team-high 62.9 percent shooting through 29 games, but what she provides the Bulls night-in and night-out can’t be summed up in a box score.
“We’re out there cheering after she gets a big rebound over a bigger post player,” sophomore forward Kitija Laksa said. “We really lack that length that we need in the post, but she goes hard. She gets a rebound and then a put-back and everyone gets really excited about it all.”
Playing a style of basketball that coaches and teammates describe as “blue-collar” and “tough,” Henshaw said she’s more than willing to do whatever it takes to win.
In the second quarter of a home game against UCF on Feb. 14, Henshaw leapt into the air for a put-back layup, but fell to the court in agony as she rolled her ankle on her descent.
Her cries of pain could be heard from any seat in the Sun Dome, and coaches doubted her return that night.
“She turns the ankle unusually, so I go out on the floor with the trainer and strength coach and usually when you untie the sneaker, it’s never a good sign,” associate coach Jeff Osterman said. “It means you’re done. Usually you tighten it up, if anything. It looked excruciating. They took the shoe off and we carried her to the locker room and she was loud and in visible pain. By the time I came back to the bench, I didn’t think I’d see her again.”
Though she left the game with the Bulls leading by one, when she returned minutes later to the surprise of her team, UCF had taken a nine-point lead.
“I can’t be on the bench, I can’t sit,” Henshaw said. “Especially with close games, it’s really hard for me to sit. I know what I can do to help and get the team up or at least do something to help. When I rolled my ankle, I knew I had to go back out there. It didn’t matter, I had to. When I came back out and we were down by nine, it bugged me a lot. I was like, ‘What the heck happened? I was gone for like two minutes.’
“It made me mad that that happened and that we went down. So, I knew I had to keep going.”
That burning desire to help her team win pushed Henshaw to earn a starting role just 10 games into the season, even after a preseason injury delayed her conditioning.
After injuring her back as the result of a hard fall early in a preseason practice, the freshman was confined to the exercise bike until the season began.
“I hated being stuck on the bike,” Henshaw said. “I knew I wasn’t out there showing what I can do and how I can help the team. I definitely don’t like sitting on the bike watching, I want to be in it.”
There was an open opportunity for a freshman to step in and earn valuable minutes, but Henshaw was far behind the pack in terms of conditioning because of her injury.
However, it was on Dec. 20 — just over a month into the season — when Henshaw learned she would be starting for the first time in a Bulls uniform.
USF was playing in the Play4Kay Tournament in Las Vegas and had opened with an unexpected 73-68 loss to Long Beach State that prompted USF coach Jose Fernandez to change his lineup.
“It was right before the game (against Santa Clara) he told me I was going to start, and I was just shocked,” Henshaw said. “I was like, ‘Wow, thank you for this opportunity.’ It was amazing, it was just something I wasn’t expecting.
“Kit (Laksa) knew before I did, and she was excited for me before I knew. I was so confused why she was coming up to me and telling me to get ready. But she was the first one I told. I was excited. I was nervous and anxious. But Kit told me before the year, ‘When you play, just think like it’s a normal high school game. Don’t think of it as being in college, just go out and play your hardest.’”
The Bulls won that game 63-54, and Henshaw has started all 28 games since.
Though USF (22-7, 11-5) has had its share of ups-and-downs this season, Henshaw has remained a steady presence in the lineup. She’s been named the AAC Freshman of the Week twice and is second on the team in rebounding since she was named a starter.
On some nights, Osterman said he has to make himself remember she’s just a freshman.
“Really, she comes out rarely, when she’s just exhausted,” Osterman said. “I think she’s the kid who gives you everything she’s got in the gas tank until she’s at that point of exhaustion. She comes out, needs about a minute and a half, and then goes right back in.”
Though Henshaw said she still grits her way through pain in her back and ankle, she’s also excited at her first taste of postseason action at the collegiate level.
With USF’s regular season over, the Bulls will first play in the AAC tournament, beginning Saturday with a game against the winner of SMU and East Carolina.
Following the conclusion of the conference tournament, the Bulls will then head back to the NCAA Tournament, something Henshaw has looked forward to and worked tirelessly toward since committing to USF.
Though the Bulls will have to match up against the giants of women’s basketball such as No.1 UConn to reach their goals, Henshaw isn’t deterred from the fight.
“I always want to prove people wrong,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re playing a good team, so we’re going to lose. I want to play a good team and know we’re able to win.
“I definitely want us to win the NCAA championship, I want to win the conference, I just want to win. That’s my biggest thing, I love to win.”