By SETH STRINGER
Casey Ponder was late to the bid party in Steve DeMeo's office on March 13, but that didn't stop the Rocky Bayou alumnus from weighing in on NWF State's difficult draw in the NJCAA Division I tournament.
As the room discussed the murder's row ahead — No. 9 nationally ranked Jones County in the Sweet 16 and then top-seeded San Jac in the Elite Eight — the 6-foot-6 freshman walked in, surveyed the bracket and provided a little levity for the underseeded Raiders, who garnered an eighth seed despite finishing the season ranked third nationally.
"We'll smack San Jac, bro," said Ponder, a Rocky Bayou High alumnus.
It was both poignant and funny coming from a bench player who's scored 24 points on the season. It was also prophetic.
Flash forward to Thursday and Daryl Edwards was firing on all cylinders, Andres Feliz was doing his best Russell Westbrook impersonation, Jeromy Rodriguez and Malik Petteway were dominating the boards and NWF State was attacking the paint at will.
Nine minutes in NWF State led San Jac by 10. By halftime the lead was 14. Six minutes into the second half the lead reached 20.
NWF State smacked the top team in the land 98-82.
"Was the best team in the country," corrected DeMeo, who's led the Raiders to two Final Fours in three years and a national title run in 2015.
Now the Raiders await the winner of No. 4 seed Hutchinson and No. 5 seed Odessa for a 7 p.m. tipoff Friday night at Hutchinson Sports Arena. The loser plays Saturday in the third-place game at 5 p.m. and the winner follows for all the marbles at 7 p.m.
"Odessa or Hutchinson, they're both great teams. They're on the level of San Jac. I definitely think our side of the bracket was the harder side."
San Jac earned the No. 1 hype with a Region 14 title and a 32-1 regular season, which included a 95-88 win over the Raiders on Nov. 19 in Niceville.
But this was a different NWF State. "Battle-tested," DeMeo said, as opposed to the collection of players that bought into the hype of a No. 1 preseason ranking in November.
Edwards dropped a game-high 25 points on 10 of 18 shooting, and because of that first contest he and his teammates didn't let their foot off the gas as the second half-lead never dipped to single digits.
"We were up (16) last time we played them, so it was a little petrifying," Edwards said. "Everybody so talented on their own, but we needed to learn to play together (early in the season). We learned to trust each other."
Jared Wilson-Frame, the media's pick for Panhandle Conference Player of the Year, tacked on 23 points, six rebounds and four assists and Feliz rounded out the backcourt with 14-point, 10-rebound double-double to accent a team-high seven assists.
Speaking of assists, the Raiders dished out 22 of them as players slashed to the lane, were active without the ball and never settled for the off-balance shot. The 55-40 rebounding edge fueled the easy looks in transition, Rodriguez (14 points) and Malik Petteway joining Feliz in double figures with 14 rebounds each.
"It's about playing the right way, sharing the ball, boxing out, doing the fundamental things to help you win," DeMeo said. "We created that separation early and we just built on that and held on."
The Raiders' ability to get the high-percentage shot was reflected by the 58-30 points-in-the-paint advantage, six timely 3s and a 52.1-percent shooting clip.
"I thought we did a good job balancing attacking the rim and shooting 3s," DeMeo said. "We got out in transition and consistently found the open shot."
Meanwhile San Jac, which entered the contest averaging more than 98 points per game and coming off a 115-point output against Connors State in the Sweet 16, couldn't buy a quality look. The No. 1 seed shot below 31 percent from the floor and did most of its damage at the charity stripe with 26 makes in 35 trips, 11 more than the Raiders. Beyond the arc San Jac was just 8 of 27 and the backcourt of Jorden Duffy (18 points) and Corey Davis (20 points) shot a combined 11-for-37.
"It really came down to two things," DeMeo said of the defensive effort. "Defend the 3-point line and keep them from penetrating the lane. We did a great job of executing both. That was arguably our best defensive effort of the year."
It was also one of the most complete team efforts as the bench shot a combined 9-for-12 as Ron Freeman followed his 19-point effort Tuesday with eight points, P.J. Bruce dished out five assists, Karim Ezzedine had six points and Gordon converted on both inside looks and had four rebounds to accent those three blocks.
"This is a closer team. We're a better team," DeMeo said. "We learned from our mistakes against San Jac and the guys bought in. We defend better, we share the ball better and we're a more complete team. That showed today as our five starters probably played their best games, and our bench came up huge with Ron, Andrew, P.J. and Karim too.
"We're going to need that tomorrow at noon and from here on out. We're excited to live to play another day."