The leader at the post

The lone senior on USF’s 2019-20 roster, Tamara Henshaw overcame doubters out of high school to put up a great collegiate career. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS

Maybe it’s fitting that she’s the leader of the pack now, considering the kind of family she’s from.

USF’s lone senior, post player Tamara Henshaw, is from a sports-heavy family. Henshaw’s father played football and basketball, her brother plays football at Georgia Southern and she has numerous other relatives that play various sports.

“My dad actually got me into basketball,” Henshaw said. “And my second-oldest sister, she started out playing, and they kind of looked at me and it was like, ‘Well, shoot, you guys are the same height. We might as well just throw yourself in there.’

“So I took a break from cheerleading, and I went to go play basketball. And me, being as competitive as I am, I fell in love with it. And it was all because of my dad.”

That’s right. The 6-foot-1-inch Henshaw was a cheerleader before she found basketball.

“She wanted to dress up and be pretty and cheer,” Henshaw’s father, Verneal, said. “But she was a tall cheerleader. She was always taller than everybody else.”

Tamara used cheerleading as her way of getting close to football.

“That was my first involvement [in sports],” Tamara said. “But the only reason I started was because I love football. I grew up in a football family. And I was like, ‘If I want to get closer to the action, might as well be a cheerleader.’”

Picking up basketball turned out to be very beneficial for Tamara. She was a four-year letterwinner in high school at Flagler Palm Coast, leading her team to the Florida State Class 8A Final Four in her senior year.

Her decision to come to USF was aided by the fact that not only would she be playing top-tier teams all the time, she’d be a short drive away from the family that got her into the sport in the first place.

“My dad is three hours away. My mom is three hours away. I’m still able to go home, on, let’s say, a three-day weekend or whatever,” Tamara said. “But it was also because of the coaching staff, the school and being in a program that we play NCAA teams all the time.”

But there were some doubts whether or not she could make it with a perennial-top 25 program. 

“You had a lot of high school coaches around the area like, ‘Oh, she can’t go to a top-Division I women’s basketball program and do any good,’” Verneal said. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’m telling you, once she gets the fire, I’m telling you, she’s going to step up to their level. She’s going to explode beyond their level, because she wants to compete.’

“And that was the key. She always loved competing and beating people out. Once she beat people out, she was like, ‘See, I told you.’”

Tamara caught the fire quickly at USF, as she posted an impressive freshman season, starting every game from Dec. 20 onward, with the exception of one game against UCF in March. She was second on the team in rebounds (226) and recorded a team-high 31 blocks on her way to a unanimous selection to the AAC Freshman Team as well as being named the AAC Freshman of the Year.

“When she won Freshman of the Year, I was like, ‘Oh my God, really?’” Verneal said, “because she beat out some freshman out of UConn, who, that’s all they talk about is the people up north. That’s what I usually say, the people up north, they talk about them more than anything, and she beats them out.

“I was like, ‘wow.’ Right after Kit[ija Laksa] won it, the next year, she won it. That’s impressive. And it shut a lot of people up.”

Three years later and USF’s only senior, Tamara is naturally one of the leaders on the team, and that’s largely thanks to the leaders who came before her.

“With having great leaders in Maria [Jespersen] and Laia [Flores] and Kit and Laura [Ferreira], they really helped me and pushed me to be the person that I am today and the player that I am today,” Tamara said. “They always wanted us to be the best, and they were pushing us all the time in practice, in weights, in whatever. 

“So I take from what they have taught me, and I try to put that toward the newcomers, and push them to always be in the gym and get up shots and be the best that they can be at the game. But also being that outlet for them. If they need someone to talk to, if they need help in school, I’m here for them, which came from all of our leaders, and I’m just trying to be that leader that they were to me.”

It hasn’t always been easy though, especially last season, when injuries hampered the Bulls to the point where USF was effectively playing with a bench of two players for most of conference play. But things like that, even though far from ideal, are valuable life lessons in the end.

“I definitely took it as that,” Tamara said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen out in the world, and if you’re not prepared for those things, then you’re going to take it as, ‘Why is everyone beating me up?’ when it’s not that — it’s life.”

But she still managed to have a good season, leading the team in rebounds (181) and steals (28).

In spite of the doubters coming out of high school, Tamara has put up a great career at USF. She currently sits at No. 11 in career rebounds in program history (686) and No. 12 in blocks (70).

It’s been rewarding to watch for her best friend and person who got her involved in basketball in the first place.

“It’s extraordinary to watch her on TV, to come to the games or see her play,” Verneal said. “When somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I’ve seen your daughter on TV.’ Like, ‘Wow, really?’ That’s a blessing.”