By SETH STRINGER
HUTCHINSON – NWF State wanted the ball in Chris Duarte's hands. And that's just what it got.
With NWF State trailing Ranger 66-63 with 2.2 seconds left in Thursday's Elite Eight, the Oregon-bound sophomore received the inbounds pass from Eric Vila about 30 feet from the basket on the right wing, dribbled to his left and stepped back for the potential equalizer to force overtime.
That shot, though, fell short. And with it so did NWF State's title hopes.
"Tough, tough," said NWF State coach Steve DeMeo, the man who led the Raiders to a national title in 2015 and five straight Elite Eights. "I wanted him to catch it in rhythm and shoot it. But it was decent look."
The Rangers then kept Duarte from catching the ensuing inbounds in rhythm, instead forcing an awkward pass over the top that took Duarte away from the basket. The shot never had a chance.
The empty possession was a microcosm of NWF State's worst offensive output of the season.
From the floor, NWF State shot a season-low 33.9 percent.
From 3, NWF State shot 7-of-29.
The result was a season-low 63 points, 27 points shy of the Raiders' 90 points per game average. Duarte and Hamlet, who entered combining for 37 points per game, were held to 24 points on 9-of-25 shooting.
"They're a helluva defensive team, led by Billy Gillispie the former Kentucky coach," DeMeo said. "They clogged the lane, forced us to take 3s. I don't know our exact shooting percentages, but I know we missed a bunch."
Even amid the shooting woes, the Raiders (28-5) appeared in control ahead 48-40 with 13:24 left to play. But the Rangers answered with a 19-4 run to take a 59-52 lead with under four minutes left.
NWF State had an answer.
Duarte scored on a putback, Hamlet fed Diggs for a layup and after a free throw from Duarte and a pair from Ludgy Debaut, the score was 59-all with 58 seconds left to play.
But on the ensuing play, Jaren English drove the lane against Debaut and Duarte left Brayan Au alone on the left wing. Au buried the 3 for a 62-59 lead and the Rangers would never trail again.
"We hopped off the shooter in the corner and we teach our guys to never do that," DeMeo said. "That was the one that broke our back."
NWF State scored on back-to-back possessions twice to close the deficit to a point, Vila with a runner in the post and Hamlet with a pair of free throws, but the Rangers answered both scores with a 4-for-4 effort at the line from Caleb Asberry.
"Our press was effective but they just kept knocking down free throws," DeMeo said.
Now the Rangers are bound for the Final Four, set to face the winner of fourth-seeded Coffeyville and fifth-seeded Florida Southwestern Friday at 5 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday's championship at 1 p.m.