By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE — In the past, NWF State coach Steve DeMeo has talked about breaking down the Panhandle Conference 12-game slate into three rounds.
It's a formula that's led the Raiders to four straight league crowns.
And it's a formula that has eighth-ranked NWF State 3-0 this season and on the cusp of a perfect Round 1 with tonight's 7:30 p.m. tipoff at sixth-ranked Tallahassee looming.
And what an impressive Round 1 it's been, the Raiders (17-2) yet to have been played to within single digits in conference play.
There was the 92-77 win over Pensacola State at The Arena to open things up. Then a 78-65 victory at Gulf Coast ensued, followed by Saturday's 95-84 win over 11th-ranked Chipola at home.
That spells a 1 1/2-game cushion over Chipola (18-2, 1-1), Pensacola State (13-6, 1-1) and Tallahassee (17-2, 1-1) and a three-game lead on Gulf Coast State (12-8, 0-3).
Making the Chipola win all the more impressive was the fact the Indians routed Tallahassee 101-73 at home this past Wednesday. That marked the Eagles' second loss in three contests following their 16-0 start to non-conference play.
Tallahassee enters the contest outscoring foes 91-65 on the season, yet the lopsided loss to Chipola indicates that was more the product of a soft non-conference schedule.
Sophomore guard Richard Washington is the Eagles' premier scoring threat with 17.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a night, followed by Deven Palmer with 13.5 points, Mustafa Lawrence with 13.2 points, Eric Boone with 12.9 points and Jalen Dalcourt with a 12.6.
Javion Hamlet has been a monster, leading the Raiders with 20 points (66 percent shooting), 8.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds in his nightly quest for a triple-double. Chris Duarte follows with 15.7 points, seven rebounds and three assists, and double-double threat Eric Vila averages 14 points and 9.7 rebounds. Kayne Henry averages 13 points, Tyrie Jackson 11 points and Noah Morgan nine points.
Collectively in Panhandle play, the Raiders are shooting 52 percent from the floor and draining 10 3-pointers a night on a 38-percent clip. Their impossible-to-maintain 100-plus points a night in non-conference play has understandably dipped a bit to 88.3 points in conference play, but their defense has improved to limit conference foes to 75 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the stat sheet they're excelling everywhere: outrebounding foes 40-35, posting a 20-10 assists margin, forcing 20 turnovers a night.