By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – Two goals down, one to go.
That was Steve DeMeo's message Saturday following NWF State's 92-67 Region 8 title win over Chipola.
The final goal, of course, is a national title. On Selection Monday' live telecast, the Raiders (30-2) found out the path to celebrating their third net-cutting ceremony of the season.
Fresh off Panhandle Conference and Region 8 crowns, the Raiders will enter Hutchinson, Kansas, as the No. 2 seed with a first-round bye in the 24-team field.
"You never know what to expect but we're happy to be recognized for winning the Panhandle Conference and Region 8, arguably the toughest region in the country," said DeMeo, who team boards a plane for Kansas on Saturday.
The Raiders await the winner of No. 15 Western Nebraska (26-7) and No. 18 Holmes (24-4) for a second-round matchup on March 20 at 6:30 p.m.
"Both of those teams are dangerous. Both have guys that score the ball well," DeMeo said. "Because they play Monday and we play Tuesday, it's hard to prepare too much for one opponent unless they just do something specific. The next few days we'll just work on ourselves."
Of note, tournament host Hutchinson – which bounced the Raiders the last two years – is once again on NWF State's side of the draw after obtaining the 11 seed. But that may be looking too far ahead, the two not slated to meet until the Final Four if they both advance.
"I didn't even notice that," DeMeo said of Hutchinson's positioning on the bracket. "All I've noticed is West Nebraska and Holmes. I try not to look too far in advance. The thing about this tourney, every team can beat you. My job is to prepare for the game in front of us."
The Raiders, who won a national title in 2015, finished fourth in the national tournament last year. But this year's crew returned only three players, led by Panhandle Conference Player of the Year Andres Feliz and fellow starter Karim Ezzeddine, while welcoming a talent-laden roster featuring stars like DJ Funderburk, Tray Boyd III, Chris Duarte and Kelvin Robinson.
Collectively, the Raiders rank near the top of every offensive metric in the country.
They're outscoring foes 90-70 on the season and shooting 53 percent from the floor, 40 percent from beyond the arc for 8.9 3s per game and 72 percent from the foul stripe.
The efficiency helped the Raiders finish 17-0 in non-conference play, 10-2 in the Panhandle en route to a fourth straight conference title and then 3-0 in the Region 8 tournament.
Now just one more goal looms on the horizon.
"We know what we have to do to advance," DeMeo said. "We've prepared all year for this."