Ensworth has been a fixture in the Division II-AA girls basketball Final Four since its inception in 2008, and the Lady Tigers are focused on earning a sixth straight berth and winning a third championship.
Since dropping a 69-64 decision to nationally ranked Riverdale in the season opener, Hubie Smith’s team has put together a 15-game winning streak and ascended to the No. 5 spot in The Tennessean Midstate Top 10.
“We’ve only got two returning seniors, and only three total, so we’re relatively young,” Smith said. “We were just incredibly young the last two years.”
Six of the top nine Lady Tigers are juniors and sophomores, but all six played extensively as Ensworth reached the DII-AA final last year.
Of those top nine players, eight have made at least four starts.
“Our starters are determined by how you practice,” said senior Justice Swett, who missed most of the 2011-12 season with a back injury. “We’re all fighting for starting spots.”
That approach by Smith keeps all the players sharp in practice and in games — where the team’s depth becomes an advantage.
“We play a lot of up-tempo,” junior Kennesha Nichols said. “We’ve got a lot of good guards and we can play faster. It’s better for us. Coach gets players in and out quickly, and by the fourth quarter, we’re still playing. It works well for us.
“None of us really care about starting. We just want to start the game off right.”
Before losing to Riverdale — ranked No. 1 in the Midstate Top 10 — Ensworth beat No. 2 Blackman by one point in a preseason scrimmage.
“That was significant because we knew they (Blackman) were going to be really good,” Smith said. “It meant something to us because Chad (Hibdon) does a great job coaching and they’ve got a really good team. I thought at that point we had a chance to be pretty good. I just didn’t know how good.”
Ensworth has won 10 games by double digits, including a 51-31 win over Clarkrange in December and a 71-42 win over Jackson County in the final of the Above The Rim Tournament in Centerville.
The Lady Tigers also had back-to-back victories against perennial District 11-AAA powers Hillsboro (57-42) and Brentwood (64-49). Ensworth also beat Franklin Road Academy and Union City.
Ensworth is scheduled to visit two-time defending DII-AA champion Girls Prep tonight and visits defending Class AA champion CPA on Jan. 26.
“We’ve played a tough schedule,” Smith said. “We like to be aggressive and play fast, offensively and defensively. The kids have worked hard. We’ve got great chemistry and we’ve played really well defensively.”