By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – A loss was inevitable.
The 19-0 perfect run. The No. 1 national ranking. The slight cushion afforded by a 5-0 run through the start of Panhandle Conference play.
In a league that houses four top 10 nationally-ranked programs and the last four national champions, these marks were always vulnerable. And Saturday's 63-58 loss to Gulf Coast State, ranked seventh nationally and second in Region 8, affirmed the parity in the Panhandle.
That's why there's no dwelling on a loss.
Not with Chipola, ranked ninth nationally and third in the state, hosting the Raiders (19-1, 5-1) tonight for a 5:30 tip.
The last time the teams met, NWF State held on for a 63-56 win at The Arena. A win tonight would keep the Raiders a game ahead of Gulf Coast State (16-3, 4-2) and create a 2 ½-game cushion over Chipola (18-3, 3-2).
Tallahassee (20-4, 2-4), meanwhile, is currently three games back and Pensacola State (14-7, 0-5) trails by 4 ½ games as the Pirates look for their first conference win.
The Raiders have thrived on both ends of the floor, shooting a collective 51 percent and not allowing any conference foe to top 67 points.
The Raiders are led in scoring by "sixth man" Cece Mayo with 13.3 points per game (67 percent shooting) to accent 4.3 rebounds and 2.7 steals. Georgia Gayle follows with 12.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists a night and Shania Meertens averages 10.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Shoring up the post are 6-foot-3 centers Jaiden McCoy and Awa Trasi. McCoy averages 11.3 points (62 percent), 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, while Trasi is good for 10.1 points (54 percent) and seven rebounds a night.
The key facilitator for the run-and-gun offense is point guard Leandra Echi, the definition of a stat-sheet filler. The sophomore is averaging 6.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 3.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.
Those team-best 3.3 steals fuel a defense built on full- and half-court traps that forces 25 turnovers a night. Meanwhile foes are shooting just 33 percent from the floor and 27 percent from beyond the arc and making just 16 trips to the charity stripe.