By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE – Leandra Echi had less than four seconds to go three-lengths of the court.
The NWF State freshman guard gathered the inbounds pass, knifed through two defenders and left the Mickey Englett floor past midcourt, 30 feet separating her from the hoop at the top of the key.
The high-arcing prayer landed nothing but net, the first-quarter buzzer sounding as the Raiders led Chipola 24-19 at The Arena.
This was the offensive surge that had eluded the Raiders in Panhandle play. This was an offense brushing off the 59 points a game, the 42-percent shooting, the tendency to defer to its stifling defense when turnovers mounted.
The fourth-ranked Raiders (20-2, 5-2) posted a conference-high 44 first-half points and never relinquished control en route to a 71-61 win over the Indians (12-9, 1-5).
"Chipola plays really good pressure defense and it wears you down, but we were pretty efficient in the first half," NWF State head coach Bart Walker said. "All we have to do is slow down and control the ball a bit."
The Raiders shot 50 percent from the floor, made 6-of-10 3s and were 12-of-13 from the charity stripe.
The pace proved unsustainable and it wasn't perfect execution offensively as the Raiders mustered just 27 second-half points, but nonetheless the depth was there. The shots were there.
The blueprint to build on this 5-2 start that trails only 6-1 Gulf Coast State in the Panhandle is there.
A comforting development in the win was that Jade Lewis broke out with 19 points. The sophomore entered the night averaging less than six points in conference play, but she buried three treys and had 12 points by halftime. Her 3-pointer with 1:54 left to play – ending a 4-for-8 effort from beyond the arc – gave the Raiders a 69-54 lead and essentially sealed the win as she finished 7-of-13 from the floor.
"Obviously her shooting the ball in the first half was big," Walker said. "Jade's got the protection to be a really good player. She's done a good job of getting herself in shape and not only playing the 3, but attacking the basket. We're happy with the way she's going now."
Trinity Baptiste followed with 14 points off the bench and her 6-for-6 effort from the charity stripe highlighted a 20-21 free-throw effort from the Raiders. Awa Trasi added 10 points, Georgia Gayle chipped in nine points and six rebounds, and Echi filled up the stat sheet with nine rebounds, seven assists, five points and three steals. Ann Jernigan added seven points.
Adding credence to a defensive effort that limited the Indians to under 40 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, the Raiders owned a 40-24 advantage on the glass. That helped offset the 26 trips to the foul line for the Indians.
"Rebounding, I thought we did a great job," Walker said. "We played pretty good defense in the first half and we understand there's always gonna be a run, but they got 26 free throws and I don't like that number. We gotta do a better job of keeping them off the line."
The 71 points were the second highest points total the Raiders have posted this season. The most came in a 78-74 win over Pensacola State, but that also required overtime.
Even in the lights-out shooting effort, the Raiders struggled early in falling behind 12-4 halfway through the first quarter. Well, until Jernigan's 3 from the right wing awoke the sleeping giant.
Lee followed with a reverse layup for the traditional 3-point play and Lewis buried one of three first-half treys to give the Raiders a 13-12 advantage. Baptiste followed with the next five points to cap a 14-2 run that staked the Raiders to an 18-14 lead and soon segued to Echi's buzzer-beater.
NWF State's defense clamped up in the second half and the lead grew. Every NWF State defensive rebound was boxed out, every outside shot was met with a hand in the face, every low-post pass was denied.
As Chipola grew frustrated en route to 10 first-half turnovers, the lead ballooned to double digits and Gayle buried a 3 from the left wing to stake the Raiders to a 44-32 halftime lead.
The Indians never got to within single digits after as NWF State led 56-42 headed into the fourth quarter and by as many as 18 in the final eight minutes.
No foe in The Panhandle has figured out how to settle into an offensive rhythm against NWF State. Only Pensacola State has topped 63 points against the Raiders and collectively opponents are shooting below 35 percent from the floor and at a sub-25-percent clip from beyond the arc.
Next up for Walker's crew is a trip Saturday to Tallahassee (18-3, 3-3) for a 5:30 p.m. tipoff. A win would give the Raiders a sizeable cushion for second place in the conference.