By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – The defensive stops were always there for Bart Walker's crew.
NWF State let Gulf Coast State live and die by the 3 Wednesday night, not allowing anything inside as the Commodores scuffled to a paltry 4-of-28 shooting effort from beyond the arc and a sub-25-percent clip from the floor.
It was a clinic that perfectly summed up the Raiders' 16-0 start and miniscule 38 points allowed per game to foes. It was also a clinic that had the fourth-ranked Raiders primed to end a seven-game skid to the third-ranked Commodores, a performance capped by a forced miss with four seconds left and NWF State leading 48-47.
Game over, right? Wrong.
Back-to-back offensive rebounds led first to a Jhileiya Dunlap free throw and then a pair of Alexus Dye makes at the charity stripe to help lift the Commodores to a stunning 50-48 win at The Arena.
The Commodores (14-1) improved to 2-0 in Panhandle Conference play. The Raiders (16-1) suffered their first setback of the campaign, falling to 1-1 after opening league play with an overtime victory at 10th-ranked Pensacola State.
So how'd it all fall apart? Well, first a shoutout to what put the Raiders in position for what would've been a morale-boosting win.
Down 43-41 with 4:22 left, Georgia Gayle hit a 3 from the right wing to put the Raiders in front. After a Gulf Coast State answer, Jernigan hit a free throw and then drilled a 3 from the right wing with 1:42 left for the 48-46 lead.
Two NWF State defensive stands later, the last capped by an Ashley Lee steal, Jernigan was bound for the foul line with 10 seconds left and a shot to ice the game.
She missed both, Gulf Coast called timeout and NWF State forced a missed shot with four seconds left. But Dunlap pulled in the offensive rebound, was fouled on the putback and made the first free throw. She missed the second, but Alexus Dye was there on the right side of the basket to get a tip and draw the foul.
She drilled both for the 49-48 lead with 3 seconds left, plenty of time for a Raiders shot after a timeout. But Jade Lewis stepped out of bounds on the ensuing inbounds, Kionna Jeter made one of two free throws as part of a 19-point effort and the Summer Blevins' heave from 70 feet away feel short.
The case that the Raiders lost because of rebounds doesn't hold much weight considering the Raiders won the battle of the boards 41-39.
Free throws loomed large with the Commodores making 16-of-20 attempts while the Raiders were 5 of 13.
But the biggest reason NWF State likely lost was because of its inability to run an offense outside of some hero ball from Awa Trasi and Jernigan. Trasi pretty much single-handedly kept the Raiders close at halftime (20-24) with 11 points, while Jernigan dropped 11 points in the third quarter and 15 of her 17 points in the second half.
Too many times the Raiders let the shot clock bleed to double zeros, opting for an off-balanced perimeter shot instead of working the ball inside or finding the cutting woman.
The end result was an offense that shot 32.8 percent from the floor and 5 of 15 from 3, well short of the Raiders' averages of 52-percent shooting and 8.3 3-pointers a night en route to 83 points per game.
At one point in the first half after yet another perimeter shot bricked in the foreground of a diminishing shot clock, Walker looked around incredulously, wondering aloud what everyone in The Arena was thinking.
"Hey, we gonna run a play? How about we get a bucket?"
Apparently not enough buckets, the skid reaching eight games against the two-time reigning national champions.
The lack of depth hurt the Raiders, who watched their three leading scorers Gayle (three points on 1-of-5 shooting) Lewis (six points on 2-of-5 shooting) and Trinity Baptiste (two points on 0-of-7 shooting) combine for just 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting. Meanwhile the Raiders' bench was outscored 11-2.
Gulf Coast had no depth either with only Jeter scoring in double figures. But despite falling 31 points shy of their season scoring average, the Commodores found a way to battle following an 81-64 win over fourth-ranked Tallahassee to open league play.
Up next the Raiders travel to 20th-ranked Chipola on Saturday for a 5:30 p.m. tip. Gulf Coast State is set to host Pensacola State Saturday for a 5:30 p.m. tip.