January 25, 2024
For Columbia’s Kitty and Fliss Henderson, sisterhood — and toughness — travels
‘[She’s] kind of like a piece of home’
Columbia point guard Kitty Henderson is in her third season with the Lions, has started 73 of 82 career games, and has played over 2,500 minutes in Columbia blue. Yet there is still a sense of newness this season for the 5’10 junior from North Curl Curl, Australia.
After two years of living across the world from her family, Henderson welcomed her younger sister Fliss, a 5’11 freshman guard, to Columbia this season. Kitty has loved the change, but it’s still an adjustment in some ways, including when it comes to the Lions’ starting lineup.
“Kitty forgets that I’m in the starting lineup,” Fliss told The Next. “She’s always like, ‘Yeah, but you’re on the ben— Oh.’”
Opponents, though, don’t forget what it’s like playing against the Hendersons, who have helped Columbia to a 12-5 record this season. Kitty runs the Lions’ powerful offense from the point guard spot. Fliss sometimes runs it, too, as a point forward in Columbia’s five-guard lineups. They seemingly never tire, and they grab rebounds and loose balls like candy.
“Coaching them has been a true joy,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters in November. “… They play hard. They compete at a high level. They think the game at a high level. And they’re going to be a special combination for the next two years.”
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Kitty and Fliss were born in England but moved to Australia at a young age. Their mother Krista initially opposed them playing basketball, so they began with netball, which is similar to basketball but has designated positions, more restrictions on contact and no dribbling.
“We were too aggressive for netball,” Kitty told The Next.
But netball taught them the fundamentals of passing, catching and cutting, which set them up well for basketball once Krista came around to it. They took to basketball right away despite being small and rather skinny, and they quickly showed the grit that’s remained a staple of their games through college.
“I had to push people and kind of get on the floor and find a way to kind of beat people when they’re bigger than me and stronger than me,” Kitty said. “So I was always kind of coming in from underneath and getting those annoying steals behind and stuff. … Since then, it’s just kind of been my identity.”
“I just found that if I … fought for a loose ball, [that] brings me so much more joy,” Fliss added. “… That feeling kind of just made me want to keep doing it.”
Fliss and Kitty played in different age groups for their club team, but they shared the court for their high school team and trained together often. Their club team only practiced twice a week, so they and their older sister Annie filled the other days by themselves or by asking a coach to join them. (Annie, who is four years older than Kitty, still plays in Australia, and all three sisters played on the same semi-professional team in 2021.)
Training together helped Kitty and Fliss develop their on-court chemistry, but the training sessions sometimes ended poorly. In games of one-on-one, “Kitty used to win by so much,” Fliss said.
“Fliss would usually be in tears by the end,” Kitty said.
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Kitty originally thought she’d stay in Australia for college, but one of her coaches, Tim Hill, kept telling her she’d be a great fit for the Ivy League. He reached out to several Ivy League programs to try to get his players exposure. And Griffith — then in her second year at Columbia and looking to develop a recruiting footprint internationally — was receptive. She watched film of Kitty and Fliss and eventually flew to Australia to meet Hill and scout players in person.
“I loved Kitty’s tenacity. She’s just a ball-getter … and her motor is just through the roof,” Griffith told The Next. “So I loved that, and I loved that she could play in an up-tempo style. … I was like, That’s what we need here.”
Fliss vacillated on whether she wanted to play in the United States, but when she watched Kitty enroll at Columbia and got a better sense of what the team was like, she decided she wanted the challenge. Griffith saw different things in Fliss than in Kitty, but she knew she wanted a second Henderson sister in the fold.
“[Fliss] was just such a composed player at her age, and she could play in multiple spots on the floor,” Griffith said. “She was such a versatile threat, which is how we use her. She literally can play the one through the five.”
Despite Griffith’s interest, though, Fliss wasn’t sure she’d get to play with Kitty in college. “I was like, I would love to play with Kitty. … That would be really cool,” Fliss said. “… But I just never really thought that it would actually happen, and it is.”
Kitty showed her grit in her first practice as a freshman, winning the Lions’ preseason conditioning test. A day later, she performed so well in a military-inspired training program that one of its leaders told Griffith, “I’ve never seen somebody suffer as well as she does.”
In December of her freshman season, Kitty moved into the Lions’ starting lineup, and she hasn’t looked back since. “If you need something done, you put her in the game,” Griffith said that season. “… She’ll figure it out.”
Kitty averaged 8.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a freshman, then improved upon each of those numbers the following year. As a sophomore, she was named All-Ivy League Honorable Mention after averaging 9.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists and leading Columbia to its first-ever Ivy League title.
This season, she’s taken another leap, increasing her scoring to 12.2 points per game and her field goal percentage from 41% to 49%. She ranks in the top 13 in the Ivy League in points, field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals. And, with a season and a half left, her 301 career assists already rank eighth in Columbia history.
“Kitty’s really good at reading defenders since getting here. She knows exactly what to do,” Fliss said. “… Back home, she was a lot more just leading the team, whereas now her own game has developed as well.”
“We call her Kitty, but she’s a dawg,” senior guard Abbey Hsu joked in December. “… She’s so dangerous because she can just put her head down and whenever you need a bucket, she can go get one. So it’s so valuable to have a point guard like that. And … she’s so much fun to play with. I wouldn’t trade her for the world.”
Kitty has also helped Fliss acclimate in her first year in New York. While Kitty admits she is sometimes hard on Fliss on the court, Griffith said she’s also seen “a softer side” of Kitty with Fliss around.
“They know how to be there for each other, which I think is really special,” Griffith said. “… They’re extremely in tune with how the other is feeling or doing.”
Sometimes, they recharge together by getting coffee, or going out to eat, or just relaxing in the dorms. Those moments have helped keep Fliss from feeling homesick. “Having [Kitty] here has made it really easy to just have another person I can fall back on or … know that I can just completely be myself [around],” Fliss said.
“At first, it was so weird. … I didn’t have any family here and then suddenly Fliss was here all the time,” Kitty said. “But it’s so good. … Even though she’s really annoying sometimes, I think she’s just so comforting and it’s kind of like a piece of home that just brings me back to where I am and resets me, so I absolutely love it. It’s so good.”
The two have gotten closer, Griffith said, as they’ve gotten used to being in the same place again. They’re still building their on-court chemistry, especially in an American style of play that’s different from back home. Kitty also started the season slowly after an offseason injury, and it took Fliss a few games to find her role.
But they’re starting to hit their stride: They’ve played 312 minutes together, and in those minutes, Columbia is outscoring opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s even better than the Lions’ overall margin of 16.2 points per 100 possessions. They have also assisted each other 14 times in 17 games, with eight assists going from Fliss to Kitty.
Their chemistry has been more ready-made on defense than on offense, Kitty said. Their strengths on defense are different — Kitty hounds the ball, while Fliss uses her physicality and strength to guard bigger players — but they know each other’s tendencies.
“Playing [defense] with her is so easy … because I just know what she’s gonna do the whole time and I feel like we’re on the same page,” Kitty said.
Fliss is averaging 4.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, and she ranks fourth on the team in minutes (22.6 per game) behind Hsu, Kitty and junior Cecelia Collins. She has started the last 14 games because of her consistency, her decision-making on offense and her shutdown defense, Griffith said.
“She is so poised for a freshman. It’s unreal,” Griffith told ESPN+’s Lance Medow after Fliss scored a career-high nine points against Seton Hall on Nov. 10 and guarded Pirates star Azana Baines at times. “I think she is just going to keep getting better the more she understands the offense, the game, her teammates. But just to have another ball-handler out there … it’s been enormous for us and the confidence of our team.”
Having both Fliss and Kitty on the roster also brings an extra edge and grit to a Lions program that takes pride in those things. That’s evident in games, but it showed up even in the preseason, when Fliss and Kitty went one-on-one in practice. According to Griffith, Kitty fouled Fliss hard, and then Fliss returned the favor.
“It was one of those moments that you were like, ‘Okay, this is what it’s like!’” Griffith told The Next. “So since then … we haven’t really done it, but that’s what postseason [workouts are] for.”
“Man, that Henderson bloodline, they’re tough,” Hsu said at Columbia’s preseason media day. “That’s all I’m going to leave you with. They’re some tough cookies.”
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Columbia calls itself a sisterhood, and as Griffith’s first pair of sisters, Kitty and Fliss are the embodiment of that. Like many sisters, they argue, they push each other to be better, and they support each other through it all — in their case, with coffee runs and a pregame handshake.
Now, they have a season and a half left to cement their sisterly intuition and see where it leads — perhaps all the way to Columbia’s first Division I NCAA Tournament appearance.
“They’re both everything you want in a player,” Griffith told reporters in November. “… You know when there’s a Henderson on the court, and now that we have two of them, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.