By SAM GRUBENHOFF
NICEVILLE — Braelen Bridges jumper from just inside the 3-point line was off.
Almost before it had a chance to leave the rim, Chris Duarte was on top of it, flying through The Arena for an offensive rebound.
When his feet hit the ground, the Northwest Florida State guard went straight back up, laying the ball in softly.
The fans cheered, the bench shouted and the Raiders went on to rout visiting Pensacola State 79-46 Saturday night. Duarte's putback, though, was of consequence.
It served to put the Panhandle Conference on notice.
Prior to Saturday's game, NWF State coach Steve DeMeo said the Pirates had the best defense in the league. Pensacola State entered the game holding opponents to an average 60 points per game.
Duarte's bucket was good for the Raiders' 60th point.
Twelve minutes remained in the game. With a little more practice, it could have come sooner, DeMeo said.
"We have a lot of guys that can score," DeMeo said. "At home we're always going to shoot the ball extremely well, but if we pass the ball extremely well, it's really hard to beat us. We got too many guys that wanna maybe once and a while score on their own. It's not because they're selfish. It's just because that's the way they're used to playing."
The Raiders (23-0 overall, 6-0 Panhandle Conference) finished with 15 assists as a team. Sophomore Andres Feliz led the team with five.
To the Pirates' credit, they are the only team to hold NWF State below 80 points in a game, and they have done so twice. NWF State put up 74 points in its first outing against the Pirates (12-10, 1-4) this season. Feliz scored a game-high 27 points, going 12-for-15 from the free-throw line.
The victory was NWF State's 21st straight in Panhandle play dating to the 2015-16 season. Focused in the present and having already played each of his conference foes once already, DeMeo see's it differently.
"It's No. 2 in round two," DeMeo said. "We're 2-0 in this round two of the conference. That's the way we look at it."
In what has been the norm all season, the Raiders wasted little time making their presence felt Saturday. They began the game on a 10-0 run and managed to outclass the Pirates in almost every statistical category in the first half.
About the only thing top-ranked NWF State wasn't able to accomplish was converting Braxton Bertolette's 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, but Duarte sure tried. With 1.7 seconds left, Bertolette's heavily contested shot bounced off the rim. Crashing, Duarte caught the miss in midair and made a reverse layup that would have counted had the buzzer not already sounded.
NWF State headed to the lockers up 35-14.
Defensively, the Raiders held Pensacola State to only 17.4 percent shooting in the first half. The Pirates' leading scorer at half, Matt Johnson had only five points.
"Our guys defended early," DeMeo said. "They came out and shared the ball, played at a really good tempo. It was a lot of fun to watch. When you share the ball, play the right way, this is a special, special group."
Four Raiders finished the game in double figures. Duarte led the team with his double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds. Feliz was second on the team with 12 points.
DeMeo's men entered Saturday's game with a perfect 5-0 record in conference play. They've outscored their opponents by 103 points in those games.
Most recently, the Raiders knocked off Gulf Coast State 89-63 this past Wednesday. Tray Boyd III and Feliz combined for 44 points, highlighting an offense averaging 91.4 points per game in conference play.
The Raiders return to action at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against Chipola. Last time out against the Indians, NWF State earned 12-point victory for its third conference win.
Despite the six-game conference win streak, the Raiders hold a slim one-game lead ahead of Chipola in the Panhandle standings.
"Virtually, it's gonna be for first place," DeMeo said. "We just gotta be ready to go."