By SETH STRINGER
It appears not so much a matter of if, but when the NWF State men's basketball team will shore up a fifth straight Panhandle Conference title.
Led by a combined 53 points from Chris Duarte and Javion Hamlet and an efficient night at the charity stripe, Wednesday's 86-82 win at eighth-ranked Chipola padded the Raiders' league cushion to 2 ½ games over the Indians and 3 ½ games over 20th-ranked Tallahassee.
"We played well," NWF State coach Steve DeMeo said. "Our guys battled, they competed and it was a prototypical Panhandle Conference road game."
The Raiders have yet to lose amid a 7-0 start to conference play, a stretch that's helped them improve to 21-2 overall and vault to No. 4 nationally and No. 2 in Region 8 behind only Florida Southwestern State.
"We've played the most competitive non-league schedule on purpose to prepare us for Panhandle play and it's paying dividends now," DeMeo said. "We didn't want to play weak, JV opponents. We understand it's OK to drop a game in college basketball because it helps prepare you for arguably the toughest conference in the conference.
"You learn from those losses and you get better from the experience, and it's showing now."
Wednesday's test proved to be the stiffest of the season, just the second time the Raiders have been played to single digits in conference play.
On a night when the Raiders shot 26-32 from the charity strip, Hamlet buried six straight free throws down the stretch to seal the win. The sophomore guard finished with 24 points, shooting 10-12 from the free throw line and 7-12 from the floor.
Duarte tacked on a team-best 29 points (10-17 from floor, 4-6 from 3) to accent 10 rebounds, while Eric Vila also delivered a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double. Meanwhile Niceville alumnus Trey Diggs went 8-8 from the foul stripe and buried two treys en route to 14 points.
"It was a tough atmosphere and our guys handled adversity well. Chipola played well, but our guys just fought the entire game."
NWF State will now enjoy a weekend off before hosting Tallahassee on Wednesday for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff. The Raiders defeated the Eagles 75-71 in the first meeting in Tallahassee.