By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – NWF State is fine, y'all.
Back-to-back tight losses to Gulf Coast State and Chipola, two top-10 programs, were never going to elicit panic for Bart Walker and Co.
Yet, for a team that opened the season with 19 straight wins and the No. 1 ranking for three straight months, losing their two-game Panhandle cushion was a wakeup call.
With every Georgia Gayle trey, with every Leandra Echi dime, with every defensive stop, the Raiders regained that swagger Wednesday night in a 61-56 win over defending national champion Tallahassee at The Arena.
Gayle delivered 17 points on a 4-for-8 effort from beyond the arc, Echi scored nine of her 17 points in the fourth quarter to accent a team-high five assists and the Raiders put together another defensive clinic in a season full of them.
The visiting Eagles shot just 39 percent from the floor, hit only 3-of-15 attempts from beyond the arc and assisted on only two shots, the bulk of their damage coming in a fourth quarter when they trimmed a 14-point deficit to four with 1:22 left to play.
But Echi buried 4-of-6 free throws down the stretch to keep the lead at two possessions and return the Raiders (20-2, 6-2), ranked seventh nationally and second in the state behind only Gulf Coast State, to the top of the Panhandle heap alongside the Commodores.
The Raiders and Gulf Coast State (18-3, 6-2) are now 1 ½ games up on Chipola (19-4, 4-3), three games ahead of Tallahassee (21-5, 3-5) and 5 ½ games up on a mathematically eliminated Pensacola State (14-9, 0-7).
That's two rounds down of Panhandle play for the Raiders, who kick off the last four-game leg Saturday at home against Pensacola State. As they look to complete the season sweep of the Pirates, Gulf Coast State will travel to Tallahassee before hosting NWF State for a pivotal matchup next Wednesday.
So what was working for the Raiders Wednesday night?
NWF State kicked off the night on fire, shooting 50 percent from the floor and building a 19-12 lead after Shania Meertens beat the first-quarter buzzer with a 3 from the top of the key.
Gayle then scored eight of her first-half 13 points in the second quarter and the Raiders held the Eagles to 35 percent shooting in the first half to build a 33-22 lead headed into the locker rooms.
The lead hit as many as 15 in the third quarter and, despite Tallahassee's best efforts to capitalize on eight turnovers from the Raiders in the fourth quarter, was never trimmed to a possession down the stretch.