By SAM GRUBENHOFF
NICEVILLE — Ann Jernigan drove to her right, skirting across the top of the 3-point line early in the fourth quarter.
The Tallahassee defender trailing her crashed full speed into Jade Lewis's screen. Now on the wing, Jernigan turned and kicked the ball back to the top of the arc.
Raider guard Georgia Gayle was all alone. She cashed in.
In the Raiders' 64-56 victory against the Eagles on Thursday night in The Arena, Gayle's 3-pointer with 8:28 left gave Northwest Florida State the lead for good.
"It was a relief, actually," Gayle said. "I haven't been shooting very well in the past few games. If anything, I just kind of stopped for a minute and realized the ball went in."
Gayle entered the frame shooting only 1-for-5 from beyond the arc, and her shooting percentage had dipped to only 32 percent from the field entering the game.
She went 2-for-2 from 3 in the fourth. Her second 3 with 37.9 seconds left put the No. 5 Raiders up 62-56, essentially sealing the game.
"That's her job," Raider coach Bart Walker said. "She's a shooter, and we tell her that ... We're counting on her to shoot the ball."
While Gayle finished the night with 11 points, three rebounds and two assists, it was Walker's defense that enabled the Raiders (18-1 overall, 3-1 Panhandle Conference) to claim a victory against No. 4 Tallahassee.
NWF State trailed 29-20 at the end of the first half, allowing Tallahassee (16-2, 1-2) to score almost at will inside.
Eagle forward Japonica James got the better of NWF State's post defense early and often, backing down Raider defenders before getting free with a quick spin to her right for easy buckets to put Tallahassee up 9-8 with 3:49 left in the first quarter.
Tallahassee finished the first quarter up 17-14 after scoring eight quick points in the frame's final minute and a half and outscored the Raiders 12-6 in the second quarter.
"I don't think we played as good as we could play, definitely in the first half," Walker said. "We weren't doing what we had prepared for."
After closing the deficit to 44-41 at the end of the third quarter, the Raider defense clamped down. NWF State held the Eagles scoreless for the first 5 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter and used an 11-0 run to pull away.
Tallahassee entered the game averaging 95.1 points per game, but that number dropped to 78.5 points per game in conference play.
"We're putting our hat on defense," Walker said. "We made some shots tonight that we hadn't been making late in the game, which is good, but our thing right now is defense."
As a team, the Raiders entered the game shooting only 40.5 percent from the floor. Thursday, they shot 47 percent from the floor.
During the same stretch, NWF State allowed only 58.3 points per game in a conference that boasts four teams ranked in the top 10.
The eight-point victory Thursday is the Raiders largest margin of victory in conference play. Each of the Raiders first three games in Panhandle play were decided by a combined eight points. NWF State opened its conference slate with a 78-74 victory against Pensacola State on Jan. 6 before dropping a Jan. 10 contest against Gulf Coast State 50-48.
The Raiders rebounded from that loss this past Saturday with a 53-51 victory against Chipola. Awa Trasi scored a game-high 17 points with five rebounds. Baptiste was the only other Raider to reach double figures, scoring 10 points with nine rebounds.
Baptiste led the team with 19 points, 11 rebounds and three steals Thursday, breaking out of a small slump. Baptiste was averaging only 5.3 points during the first three games in Panhandle play.
Up next, the Raiders head to Panama City for a rematch with Gulf Coast State at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, now with a solid conference comeback victory under their belts.
"We got down," Walker said. "We were down nine at half, and we just find a way to win. This is a gutsy, resilient team."