By SETH STRINGER
OCALA – NWF State's deficit was 19 points with 11 minutes to play.
Three minutes later, Steve DeMeo's crew trailed Florida Southwestern State by 17 in the Region 8 semifinals in Ocala.
Even with three minutes left, the deficit was still double digits at 10.
"I was trying to figure out if I should back into the insurance business," quipped DeMeo. "I was just thinking it wasn't our day."
Yet this is NWF State.
The reigning Region 8 champion. An Elite Eight qualifier four straight years in the national tournament. Built for the postseason.
And now, after Friday's improbable comeback against the top-ranked team in the country, the eighth-ranked Raiders (26-4) are a win away from defending that region title.
Javion Hamlet laid the game-winner off the glass with 3.7 seconds left to play and the Raiders finished on an 11-0 run for the 69-68 win at the College of Central Florida.
"I'm so proud of the resiliency of our guys, who refused to give up," said DeMeo, whose squad will face 18th-ranked Eastern Florida State in today's championship at 7:30 (EDT). "These guys are winners and they're growing. Sometimes you got to take a step backward to take two steps forward."
"From how it played out, this will only make us stronger."
Chris Duarte, who finished with a game-high 24 points to accent eight rebounds, scored nine straight in the 11-0 run, the last a basket in the post with 24 seconds left to close the deficit to 69-68.
NWF State then fouled and Florida Southwestern missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
Timeout Raiders, giving DeMeo time to draw up a final play.
That play went to Hamlet, the sophomore point guard coming off a career-high 35-point effort against Daytona State. Hamlet drove to his dominant left side, got his defender off-balance and buried the leaner off the glass with 3.7 seconds left.
Forced to take a timeout past midcourt with 1 second left, Florida Southwestern's inbounds pass to the post was denied to secure the win for DeMeo's crew.
Eric Vila added 14 points and Hamlet scored 13 points for the Raiders, who overcame 37 percent shooting and an 8-for-27 effort from beyond the arc.
"As poorly as we played, the last five minutes we played unbelievable basketball," DeMeo said. "We found a way."
Now the Raiders are close to crossing off phase No. 2 as Eastern Florida State awaits.
"Winning the Panhandle was goal No. 1," DeMeo said. "The Region 8 tournament is goal No. 2 and the national title is No. 3.
"A lot of people don't put as much emphasis on the region tournament as I do, but I'm proud we've won three of the last four tournaments. We'd love to make it one more and lock up that automatic bid."