By SETH STRINGER
This NWF State team was great.
Steve DeMeo knew it when the Raiders went 12-0 in the Panhandle Conference.
His players knew it when they fought off an 11-point deficit in a Sweet 16 win over Jones County, a crew that ended the season ranked No. 8 in the national polls.
The country knew it the Raiders knocked off No. 1-seeded San Jac in the Elite Eight.
Yet, like last year, the Raiders ran into one hurdle they couldn't clear.
Hutchinson (32-2), sporting the same home-court advantage that led to a 116-90 rout over the Raiders in the Elite Eight last year, was just too good in an 88-79 win.
J.J. Rhymes was too good, the guard with 20 points.
Shakur Juiston was too good inside with an 18-point, 15-rebound effort.
The Blue Dragons' defense was too good, holding the Raiders (27-4) to 41 percent shooting and just nine free throws compared to their 21-for-29 effort from the charity stripe.
And the home crowd, the student section and arena asserting who's home it was, was too good.
It didn't matter that Jeromy Rodriguez, the coaches Panhandle Player of the Year, dropped a game-high 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.
It didn't matter that Daryl Edwards, who broke ankles and attacked the rim without fear, put the team on his back at crucial stretches en route to 20 points.
It didn't matter that P.J. erupted for 15 points off the bench.
Tied at 69-all with under six minutes to play, Hutchinson delivered in the clutch. NWF State, making its fourth Final Four appearance in six years, didn't.
And DeMeo, who led the Raiders to a national title in 2015, will likely look at the 20-free throw disparity as a big reason why.
While NWF State mustered just two free throws over the final six minutes, the Blue Dragons buried 13 of 16 free throws during that stretch as they got into the double-bonus with five minutes left.
Hutchinson took a 71-69 lead on a pair of free throws by Devonte Bandoo, who had 10 points, and Sal Nuhu followed up a miss with a thunderous dunk with five minutes left to play for two of his nine points.
A three-minute dry spell from NWF State mixed with four free throws from the Blue Dragons and suddenly the deficit was 77-69 with 3:20 left. Edwards and Bruce answered with back-to-back finishes around the rim but Juiston responded with a bank shot in the post.
Again Edwards responded with a take but the Raiders would get no closer, Haynes-Jones answering with a traditional 3-points play and then Nuhu pushing the lead to nine with a pair of free throws on the next possession.
With little falling outside of Rodriguez, Edwards and Bruce – Jared Wilson-Frame, the Panhandle Conference media player of the year, was 5 of 16 from the floor and 1 of 8 from beyond the arc for just 11 points and Andres Feliz (six points) and Ron Freeman (two) combined for just eight points – the Raiders had no late comeback in them. The nail in the coffin was when the Raiders had a steal and easy layup to cut the lead to 86-81 with 30 seconds left but Karim Ezzedine lost the handle on the ball.
NWF State had its chance for separation early.
The Raiders led 37-29 late in the first half after a left-handed slam by Bruce, who had a team-high 10 points in the opening 20 minutes of play. But NWF State became stagnant and settled for off-balanced shots as the Blue Dragons answered with a 10-0 run. An Edwards 3 later gave the Raiders a 41-39 lead but the hosts finished off the half with a 7-0 run to lead 46-41 headed into the locker room.
Despite falling behind by seven in the second half, the Raiders wrestled back momentum with a 12-4 run to take a 59-58 lead with 12 minutes to play after Edwards broke some ankles on a nasty crossover and finished with a 17-foot jump shot. With seven minutes left Rodriguez gave the Raiders a 69-67 lead with a basket inside, but the Blue Dragons just couldn't be held off the free throw line.
Now the Raiders will have to regroup for the third-place game tonight at 5 p.m. against the loser of South Plains and Eastern Florida State.