By SAM GRUBENHOFF
NICEVILLE — D.J. Funderburk drove into the crowded lane, letting it collapse around him, waiting until the absolute last second to strike.
With little room, he fired a pass between two defenders to Karim Ezzeddine, cutting backdoor. Ezzeddine laid the ball in softly. Funderburk flexed toward the home fans, letting out a roar of approval.
The Raiders had woken up, and Coastal Alabama - North was in trouble.
After a sluggish start, Northwest Florida State beat the Eagles 91-73 Tuesday night at The Arena in Niceville to finish its nonconference season with an unblemished 17-0 record.
"We need to play a little harder, a little more motivated," Raider coach Steve DeMeo said. "I think it's the last nonconference game at home, and the guys were lookin' forward to the conference play, which starts on Saturday."
After playing the Raiders within one possession for much of the first half, Coastal Alabama (7-8) had gone almost four minutes without scoring — a death sentence against the No. 1 NJCAA team in the country.
"I think we woke up from a little nap and decided to play some defense," DeMeo said. "Chris (Duarte) was a big part of it as was Adres and D.J. and Kelvin (Robinson) and Karim and Tray (Boyd III)."
The Raiders forced the Eagles into 21 turnovers and picked up 12 steals. Despite being outrebounded in the first half, NWF State finished up 34-32 on the boards, including 14 offensive rebounds.
"Overall, we had a balanced effort from everyone," DeMeo said. "Chris performed well again, as he always does."
Coming off the bench, Duarte finished with team-high 23 points on 9-of-10 shooting and a team-high eight rebounds in 26 minutes. He scored the Raiders final seven points over the last 3 1/2 minutes of the game.
"Was good, was good," Duarte said. "I was pretty excited about that."
Playing their first home game since Nov. 18, the Raiders couldn't shake Coastal Alabama for much of the first half. The Eagles opened the game on a 6-0 run before NWF State got on the board with a corner 3 to kick the offense into gear.
The Raiders took their first lead shortly thereafter. Immediately after Robinson's steal and breakaway slam tied the game at 10, Funderburk again took the ball away from the Coastal Alabama offense and barreled over the Eagle defense at the opposite end for a bucket and the foul.
After playing much of the first half within one possession, NWF State began to pull away with two minutes to play in the half. Boyd scored on a 3-pointer and a fastbreak layup before Duarte slammed home a two-handed dunk to finish the half on a 7-0 run and head to the locker room up 43-35.
With conference play coming up, Duarte said he hopes his recent string of performances leads to more playing time.
"I'm looking forward to get the opportunity to play more minutes," Duarte said. "To prove myself."
The Raiders entered Tuesday's contest having already beaten the Eagles twice this season. NWF State won a close season-opening contest 83-78 on Nov. 1 in Monroeville. Boyd III had 30 points and Feliz had 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Nine days later, the Raiders welcomed Coastal Alabama to The Arena and crushed the Eagles 84-67 behind a 20-point performance from Funderburk.
The top-ranked JUCO in the country, NWF State has played three games since returning from an 18-day holiday vacation. The Raiders showed little in the way of rust, besting Gordon State College and East Georgia State College on Friday and Saturday, respectively, before Tuesday's victory.
Up next, the Raiders begin Panhandle Conference play with a matchup against Pensacola State at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Pensacola. DeMeo said he likes his chances.
"We have a good nucleus of guys who play," DeMeo said. "When they wake up and play hard, we can beat people."