By SAM GRUBENHOFF
NICEVILLE — Another loose ball hit the floor.
Raiders and Pirates dove to the floor of Mickey Englett Court late in fourth quarter. When the whistle blew, the ball belonged to Pensacola State College.
Northwest Florida State coach Bart Walker turned back toward his bench, arms folded.
"They're outhustling us," he told his assistants.
They weren't for long.
In a 60-49 victory Saturday night at The Arena, the Raiders found the hustle to close it out.
It started with a charge. Trailing 54-49 Pirate sophomore Mylashia Yancey barreled into Raider freshman Lea Echi underneath the basket. On the other end Sophomore Angela Jernigan drew a foul and converted both free throws with two minutes left.
On the next possession, Yancey again tried to drive inside. This time she lost the ball.
Again, Jernigan seemed to make her pay, burying a 3-pointer from the left wing as the shot clock read "0.0." She held her form a second longer for good measure.
NWF State, holding conference opponents to only 58.8 points per game entering Saturday's game, held Pensacola State scoreless for the final 2 1/2 minutes of play.
"We gave up a lot of penetrations in the second half, "Walker said. "They scored a lot of points at the free-throw line because we had some defensive breakdowns, but hey, it's a good win. We fought for it, and we had some people make some good plays."
The first half played out like a return to form for the Raiders' offense, which has struggled since starting conference play. Sophomore guard Jade Lewis led off the first quarter by knocking down five of her first six shots, and No. 3 NWF State (19-2 overall, 4-2 conference) led 21-9 at the end of the frame.
Freshman sharpshooter Georgia Gayle made her mark in the second quarter, converting all three of her field goals, including one 3-pointer.
As a team, the Raiders shot 55.6 percent in the first half with only six turnovers, while forcing the Pirates (17-4, 1-4) into bad shots and 15 turnovers.
Entering the game, the Raiders were shooting only 41.5 percent from the floor and 24 percent from 3.
"We got shooters, and I always say the average is gonna come back your way," Walker said. "Playing some extended minutes, it's hard to shoot jump shots. We had a lot of wide-open shots late in this game that we should have made. But hey, we made enough to win."
Three Raiders reached double figures Saturday. Lewis led all scorers with 17 points. Forward Awa Trasi had 16, doing the bulk of her damage in the paint where NWF State outscored Pensacola State 24-12. Gayle finished with 14 points.
Pensacola State opened conference play with a 78-74 loss to the Raiders in early January. Gayle scored a team-high 17 points with eight rebounds and five assists.
Five Raiders reached double figures that afternoon in a game that turned into an offensive track meet. It was NWF State's highest offensive output in any conference game this season.
NWF State entered the game coming off only its second loss this season, falling to two-time reigning national champion Gulf Coast State 63-51 this past Wednesday in Panama City.
Despite a similar amount of turnovers and like shooting percentages, the Commodores managed to pull away, making four more shots from the floor overall, including three 3-pointers. Trinity Baptiste led the Raiders with 16 points. Commodore Shayla Bennett led all scorers with 33 points, going 12-of-15 from the foul stripe.
The fourth-ranked Commodores remain the only team to get the better of NWF State this season, beating the Raiders twice in January, though both games have been close in the final two minutes.
The Raiders return to action at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday against Chipola in Niceville. Last time out against the Indians, NWF State won a narrow 53-51 victory for its second Panhandle Conference win.
While Saturday felt like a solid bounce-back game, Walker said his team still needs to work on its effort.
"I thought we had pretty good energy the first half," Walker said. "We knew we needed to protect our house and the girls came ready.
"We gotta play two halves of basketball. We always have one quarter where we go into a lull offensively. We gotta do a better job of not letting that get to us."