By SETH STRINGER
HUTCHINSON, KANSAS – As NWF State sophomore Trey Diggs lay on his back under the basket, the celebration was in full swing.
Tyrie Jackson had the Tiger Woods fist pump going.
Javion Hamlet had the white Raiders towel waving on the bench.
Eric Vila had the call, mimicking the ref's charge signal with his left hand behind his head and his right arm extended in NWF State's direction.
The whole bench was up – coaches and players. And soon Diggs would be too, helped by the outstretched arms of 6-foot-11 Ludgy Debaut, who seconds earlier tried to intercept a pass at the top of the key from Cape Fear's Quate Mckinzie to Demetric Horton.
Horton split Debaut and Chris Duarte and strolled past Jackson to his right, nothing but daylight between the Cape Fear guard and the rim. Only Diggs was ready, the Niceville alumnus leaving his man on the left wing and getting both feet set outside the paint's restricted area to draw the charge.
This, NWF State coach Steve DeMeo said, is the epitome of the Raiders at their finest. And the Raiders brought their A-game Tuesday to the Sweet 16, a stifling defensive effort fueling a 95-75 win over the 17th-ranked Sea Devils to open the NJCAA Division I national tournament.
Embracing the No. 1 seed, the Raiders held the Sea Devils to 35 percent shooting, a 5-for-22 clip from 3 and J.J. Miles, their leading scorer at 16 points a night, to just 1-of-9 shooting for five points. The Raiders also controlled the boards for a 40-30 disparity over a program that entered the game sporting a 46-30 nightly advantage over foes.
"I feel like the defense was spectacular," said DeMeo, who has the Raiders in the Elite Eight for the fifth straight year. "The last four games – three in the regional tournament – were great and tonight was great as well. We held them to 35 percent from the floor, 22 percent from 3 and their best player never got enough shots to make it a close game.
"It comes down to guarding the basketball. It really comes down to the defensive end with this team. Our guys executed the game plan."
Not to be overshadowed, the offense shot 58 percent from the floor, 9-of-16 from 3 and 30-of-40 at the charity stripe.
"We shot the ball at a great percentage – 58 percent from the floor, 56 percent from 3 – so it's going to be hard to beat us if we're shooting those numbers," DeMeo said.
Hamlet dropped 25 points and Chris Duarte scored 23, NWF State's two stars combining to shoot 17-of-25. Noah Morgan added 13 points, Jackson chipped in eight points and NWF State's big men shined defensively, Vila with 10 rebounds and three steals and Debaut with six rebounds and three blocks.
As for Diggs, he buried two 3s en route to seven points off the bench. And, reminiscent of the region semifinals where he delivered three charges in a win over No. 1-ranked Florida Southwestern, one huge defensive play.
That charge was part of an 8-0 run late in the first half that put the Raiders up 30-17. By halftime they led 36-23 and the advantage never dipped below eight in the second half.
"We got them on a back-to-back and we were fresh," said DeMeo, noting Cape Fear's 104-90 win against Arizona Western the night before.
But NWF State (28-4) earned a bye with a fifth straight Panhandle Conference title and a second consecutive Region 8 crown. And now they'll earn an Elite Eight matchup with eighth-seeded Ranger (29-3) at noon on Thursday in Hutchinson.