By SETH STRINGER
OCALA – All season long the NWF State women have hung their success on the defensive end of the floor.
Friday's 68-36 win over Santa Fe in the Region 8 semifinals was much of the same.
Full-court and half-court traps. Clogging the lanes. Contesting shots on the perimeter.
Turning turnovers and long rebounds into transition buckets.
This was Bart Walker's brand of basketball to a T.
The Saints shot just 24 percent from the floor and 5-21 from beyond the arc, committed 22 turnovers and made just six trips to the foul stripe.
"Well, I think we were locked in on the defensive end," Walker said. "Our preparation was good, we didn't foul and we made them take contested shots. I thought we were really locked into our game plan from the get-go."
And this was a hot Saints team, which entered the day 20-7 and riding a 10-game win streak. Averaging 77 points per game, their previous low was 51 points in a loss to Tallahassee.
Only Janasis Law scored in double digits with 14 points for the Saints, which were beaten 50-42 on the boards, 17-3 at the foul stripe, 15-10 off turnovers, 12-9 on second-chance points and 22-6 on points off the bench.
Essentially NWF State held the advantage in every category.
Meanwhile the offense came out hungry, leading 41-16 at halftime on 17-21 shooting from the foul stripe and 14 points from Georgia Gayle. Gayle, who ended the game with a game-high 17 points on 6-10 shooting and four treys, nearly outscored the Saints by herself in the first half.
"I thought in the first half we played well offensively in terms of team basketball," Walker said.
Awa Trasi added 15 points and was a force on the glass with a game-high 15 rebounds and Alayjah Sherer chipped in 16 points with a 9-9 effort at the charity stripe. Jaiden McCoy scored eight points and Leandra Echi dished out a team-best five dimes.
Now the Raiders (24-4) are one win away from a Region 8 title. Standing in their way is three-time reigning champion Gulf Coast State (23-5), which went 2-1 against the Raiders during the regular season.
Tipoff between the co-Panhandle Conference champs is at 5 p.m. (EST) Saturday night at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, the winner earning an automatic bid to the NJCAA national tournament while the loser will for sure lock up an at-large bid.
"When you play in a league like ours, it's like playing in the SEC or ACC and you expect to play a team four, five times," Walker said. "You expect to play them in tournament games, and we could very easily play them again in the national tournament."
While Walker noted a region title would be special for the community and the program, just making a title appearance is huge considering the Raiders sat out the region tournament last year and finished 1-11 in the Panhandle two years ago.
"We're just glad for the opportunity and we're so proud of the ladies in what they've done in resurrecting this program," Walker said. "All the glory goes to them – they put in the time and the work, they make the shots, they do what we ask of them and they deserve it."