By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE — Ranked foes ... former national champions ... rivals around every corner. The Panhandle schedule so far has been brutal for the NWF State women's basketball team.
The results have not.
Ranked No. 1 in the land all season, Bart Walker's crew has built on an undefeated non-conference record with three marquee wins over Pensacola State, Gulf Coast State and Chipola to improve to 17-0.
More importantly, the Raiders have a one-game cushion over Gulf Coast State (14-2, 2-1), a 1 1/2-game lead on Chipola (16-2, 1-1) and a 2 1/2-game advantage on Tallahassee (18-2, 0-2) and Pensacola State (14-4, 0-2).
The Raiders will look to pad that cushion tonight in Tallahassee, where they'll face the eighth-ranked Eagles for a 5:30 p.m. tip.
Tallahassee is the reigning national champ, though it began league play with two hard-fought losses — first a 101-96 loss in double overtime to the Commodores and then an 86-82 defeat at Chipola.
The Eagles are outscoring foes 98-60 on the season, led by Juliunn Redmond's 16.6 points and Daisha Bradford's 16.2 points a night.
NWF State, meanwhile, has featured a little more depth and defense in beating 21st-ranked Pensacola State 63-58 at home, seventh-ranked Gulf Coast State 75-67 on the road and 10th-ranked Chipola 63-56 at The Arena.
During conference play, the Raiders have five players averaging double figures and are shooting a blazing 51.3 percent from the floor.
The person who makes the transition-minded offense go is Leandra Echi, who averages 8.3 assists, eight rebounds, six points, four steals and two blocks per game in league action. Meanwhile Georgia Gayle remains NWF State's premier 3-point threat with just shy of 10 points a night to accent 6.3 rebounds and four assists a night.
Yet looks at the rim remain the bread-and-butter for NWF State, which forces nearly 30 turnovers per game, average 20-plus assists and shoots 10 fewer 3s per game than its foes (17-7.3).