By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE, FL – The NWF State women navigated the toughest conference in the land en route to a co-Panhandle crown.
They navigated the toughest region in the land all the way to the finals.
On Monday the battle-tested Raiders (24-5) learned their path in the third phase of the season. Yep, armed with an at-large 11 seed, Bart Walker's crew is bound for the NJCAA Division I national tournament in Lubbock, where the Raiders will open with 22nd-seedeed NOC-Enid for a noon tip on March 19.
But don't let the double-digit seed fool you.
Three of the Raiders' losses came to the Commodores, seeded second in the national tournament after winning the Panhandle and beating the Raiders in the Region 8 title game, and the other two came to sixth-ranked Tallahassee and 15th-ranked Chipola.
But the latter two will sit out the postseason, the Eagles the more surprising omission considering their status as defending national champion and that four of their five losses came to the Commodores and Raiders.
But the field of 24 teams (16 automatic bids, eight at-large) is strong enough as is. And for the Raiders the first obstacle is a 28-3 Jets squad that won the Region II championship after finishing the Oklahoma Collegiate Athletic Conference a perfect 16-0.
Interestingly enough, it was the 11 seed that Tallahassee rode to a national title last year. That path included a Final Four win over 2016 and 2017 national champion Gulf Coast State, which the Raiders may potentially have to face for a fifth time this season if both teams advance to the Final Four.
Boding well for the Panhandle is that the conference has housed the last four national champions, Chipola beginning the string in 2015. NWF State, which lost 55-52 to Tallahassee in the Elite Eight last year, would make it four Panhandle champions in the last five years.
If the Raiders make some noise, it will likely be on the shoulders of their defense.
Opponents are averaging just 53 points per game on 33 percent shooting and a 29-percent clip from beyond the arc. The Raiders are also forcing 22 turnovers a game, turning that into 48 percent shooting behind five players averaging in double figures.
Cece Mayo leads the Raiders with 12.1 points per game (63 percent), followed by Georgia Gayle's 12 points, Jaiden McCoy's 10.8, Shania Meertens' 10.2 and Awa Trasi's 10. Point guard Leandra Echi has filled up the stat sheet with 6.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.