By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – The NWF State women are suddenly the biggest Pensacola State fans.
That's what three straight Panhandle Conference losses have done to the Raiders (22-5, 7-5), the latest Wednesday's 61-51 crushing defeat to Tallahassee (21-5, 6-5) that leaves their postseason fate in limbo until Saturday's finale between Pensacola State at Tallahassee.
If the Eagles beat fourth-place Pensacola State (14-11, 3-7), they'll force a one-game playoff for the conference's runner-up spot that will tip off Tuesday in Chipola at a time to be determined. If they lose, NWF State is bound for the Region 8 tournament that begins March 7.
Of course Bart Walker would argue Wednesday night should have been drama free and more about Sophomore Night. But NWF State, after starting 7-2 in conference play, has struggled mightily down the stretch.
Walker's seventh-ranked crew whiffed on its first two chances to shore up a playoff spot, losing 63-43 at home to Panhandle Conference champion Gulf Coast State on Valentine's Day before suffering a 58-49 setback on Saturday at Chipola, which they had beaten by two and 10 points earlier in the year.
On Wednesday night, the Raiders could only blame their offensive woes.
They missed all 18 3-pointers, Georgia Gayle 0-8 from beyond the arc and the majority of the looks off-balance or coming with the shot clock ticking down.
They shot 11-19 from the charity stripe, a stat amplified when you consider the Eagles' 31 attempts and 19 makes.
Only 35 percent of their looks fell and they committed 25 turnovers, leading to a 27-7 scoring disparity off takeaways.
Lamenting every stat was Walker, who paced back and forth on the sideline.
"They beat us on free throws."
"Zero for 18 from 3."
"We can't score if we can't hold onto the ball."
"We can't do nothing if we can't make shots."
Simply put, eighth-ranked Tallahassee played for its postseason life. On its home court, NWF State didn't.
Now the Raiders have to sweat out Saturday and potentially a neutral court playoff game where the loser's season is done.
Regardless, NWF State's turnaround from last year's 1-11 Panhandle record is a stunning narrative. A three-game skid won't change that.
After all, this year's team – replete with a new coaching staff – is a different crew. Armed with a different focus. A different mindset.
That was apparent when the Raiders mounted a furious comeback from down 34-19 in the third quarter, where Ann Jernigan scored eight of her team-best 14 points.
After bringing it to a manageable 42-34 deficit, Trinity Baptiste scored in the post as part of a 12-point, eight-rebound effort and Ashley Lee (11 points) finished down low on back-to-back trips to cap a 6-1 run and close the deficit to 43-40 entering the fourth quarter.
After falling behind five points to start the fourth, Baptiste and Jade Lewis scored to cut the lead to 45-44.
Moments later, down 49-48, Lewis had an open trey from the right wing went halfway down before rimming out.
NWF State would never lead the entire night, Nakiah Black following with a 3 and the Eagles setting up camp at the line to stretch the lead to its eventual double-digits outcome.
Even so, NWF State can take solace in the fact it controls its own destiny.
Regardless of Saturday, the Raiders simply must win and they'll keep advancing.