SEC women’s basketball legend will coach Cleveland Lady Blue Raiders

AP photo by Jae C. Hong / Los Angeles Sparks guard Bianca Thomas passes the basketball during the WNBA team's media day in May 2010 in Inglewood, Calif. Bianca Hensley, formerly Thomas, has been hired as girls' basketball coach at Cleveland High School.

Bianca Hensley, a former Ole Miss basketball standout who coached the Stewarts Creek High School girls to a program-record 29 wins this past season, has been hired to lead Cleveland's Lady Blue Raiders.

In Hensley's four seasons heading Stewarts Creek, the Nashville-area program won 93 games. The Lady Red Hawks are also coming off back-to-back district championships and were within a win of reaching the Class 4A state tournament this past March, losing in the TSSAA postseason's sectional round to Cleveland rival Bradley Central.

The Bearettes, who defeated the Lady Blue Raiders in the Region 3 final to set up the sectional against Stewarts Creek, went on to win the program's seventh state title.

Hensley's interest in applying for the job with the Lady Blue Raiders was sparked when she recalled watching a postseason game at Raider Arena as Cleveland hosted Bradley Central.

"I am very familiar with Bradley Central," said Hensley, who's from Henderson, Tennessee. "We went to Bradley two years ago and lost in two overtimes, and they returned the game to us, and we were fortunate enough to beat them. Coach (Jason) Reuter does an exceptional job there.

"I had a chance to see a game between Cleveland and Bradley Central, and to see the fan base and excitement that goes into people wanting to watch girls' basketball was amazing. Obviously Bradley Central is one of the top-tier teams in the state, but my goal is to get Cleveland to compete for state championships."

From 2006 to 2010, Hensley (Thomas at the time) starred as a point guard at Ole Miss, scoring more than 1,500 points. Her 226 3-pointers rank second in Rebels history, she set a program record with 100 3s in her final season and she holds the Southeastern Conference tournament mark with six 3s in one game. Hensley was an All-SEC first-team selection as a junior and senior, was the No. 12 pick in the 2010 WNBA draft, and in March she was honored at the SEC tourney as a member of the newest class of SEC Women's Legends.

"When I played, I was a scorer first," Hensley said. "But now as a coach, my philosophy has changed. I feel like defense wins championships. The brand of basketball I will bring to Cleveland High School is defensive tenacity. I plan on being all over the ball. Pressing and getting steals and creating a lot of chaos. Offensively, I love mixing and matching as far as dribble drive and motion sets and quick hitters."

  photo  AP photo by Rogelio V. Solis / Ole Miss guard Bianca Thomas rushes past Tennessee forward Alberta Auguste for the loose ball during an SEC matchup in January 2008 in Oxford, Miss. Bianca Hensley, formerly Thomas, has been hired as girls' basketball coach at Cleveland High School.

The Lady Blue Raiders went 27-12 this past season, their most successful since the 2007-08 campaign, and their sectional appearance was the program's first in 13 years. Hensley believes there is no reason why Cleveland can't return to the level of success it enjoyed while reaching four straight state tournaments from 2005-08.

"They have so many resources for Cleveland girls' basketball to be successful," Hensley said. "I have no doubt we will continue to build upon their great finish this past season. I have been so impressed already. So many of the girls have reached out to me and told me how excited they are to get to work. I plan to meet them early next week."

One player Hensley could build around is 6-foot-3 Lauren Hurst, who had a 20-point, 20-rebound game as a Cleveland sophomore this past winter. Hurst is also a volleyball star, earning recognition from Gatorade as the state's player of the year in that sport this past January.

"We have one of the best players in the state in 2025," Hensley said. "Lauren has been getting so many offers. Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Miami and others. My goal and plan is to help her get Miss Basketball. She is that talented. I can't wait to work with all the girls and get to know them and build relationships."

Hensley follows Tony Williams, who led the Lady Blue Raiders for the past seven seasons and is now coaching Ooltewah's Lady Owls.

In a release announcing the hiring of Hensley, Cleveland athletic director Al Morris said school officials "are excited about this new addition to the Raider family. We have every confidence she will build upon the program's success and inspire our student-athletes to achieve greatness."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at [email protected].