By SETH STRINGER
OCALA – A harsh truth faced NWF State when it tipped off Friday afternoon against Florida SouthWestern State.
For the first time all year, the Raiders were underdogs.
Well, not in their mind. Just on paper.
The Buccaneers entered the Region 8 semifinal tilt in Ocala ranked second in the country at 29-1. The Raiders entered ranked four in the nation at 28-2.
Don't expect Steve DeMeo's crew to be underdogs again this season.
Andres Feliz's 22 points led four Raiders in double figures and NWF State cruised to an 86-65 win to advance to the Region 8 tournament title game.
Waiting for the Raiders at 4 p.m. (CT) today in Ocala is a familiar foe: Panhandle rival Chipola, which defeated St. Petersburg 93-72 in the other semifinal
NWF State is 2-1 against Chipola on the season, defeating the Indians 85-73 and 85-79 to open the season. But then the Raiders lost 98-91 in Marianna after securing a fourth straight conference title.
At 21-7 and unranked, Chipola likely won't likely get an at-large bid if it were to lose. NWF State easily would. That's what makes the Indians so dangerous.
Of course the Raiders have shaken off the rust of two losses in their final four regular season games and appear focused for a deep postseason run that'll include a Region 8 title.
Friday's impressive win over the second-ranked team in the country validates that.
The Raiders created some breathing room midway through the first half, using an 11-0 run to build a comfortable 32-18 lead with eight minutes to play. That advantage would never fall below double digits afterward.
Feliz, the Panhandle Conference Player of the Year, was lights-out on the offensive end. The sophomore point guard shot 8-of-15 from the floor and knocked down three treys to accent eight rebounds and three assists.
As was the case all year, the Raiders shined on the defensive end.
Led by Chris Duarte's five steals, the Raiders forced the Buccaneers into 19 turnovers and a 42-percent shooting clip. The Buccaneers couldn't buy a bucket from beyond the arc, shooting 2-of-14 from 3, and also struggled to make it to the charity stripe with only 19 free-throw attempts compared to the Raiders' 27.
NWF State held pretty much every edge on the stat sheet, outscoring Florida SouthWestern 22-14 off turnovers, 18-6 from beyond the arc and 16-12 on second-chance points.
It wasn't the most crisp offensive effort from NWF State, which entered averaging 85 points per game and shooting a collective 53 percent from the floor. The Raiders shot 44 percent from the floor and only 6-of-20 from beyond the arc, but they attacked the rim and got to the foul line for a 24-of-27 clip.