NICEVILLE — It’s official. The Panhandle Conference is a free-for-all.
But then again, what else is new?
Just one week after Chipola knocked off Gulf Coast State, the reigning national champions, to claim the No. 2 ranking in the country, coach Bart Walker and the No. 9 NWF State women’s basketball team took down those same Indians on Wednesday night in Niceville, 74-68.
"It’s great to have a win," Walker said. "It was a great game. Both teams fought hard and you know that’s what you get when you get in the Panhandle.
"It’s exciting for the fans, and I’m really happy for the team."
Trailing 37-32 at the end of the third quarter, the Raiders (18-3 overall, 3-2 Panhandle Conference) finally shrugged off a rough shooting night and turned out the lights on the Indians, converting 11-of-15 field goal attempts in the final frame.
Four of those came by way of sophomore guard Reneasha Payton, a Fort Walton Beach High School alumna, who drained two 3-pointers and a coast-to-coast layup in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter to help NWF State to a 60-52 lead.
Payton finished with a game-high 17 points, four rebounds, two steals and an assist.
Meanwhile, the Indians (19-2, 4-1), who had shot 46.5% through the game’s first 30 minutes, finally caved to NWF State’s vaunted defense, converting just one bucket through the first five minutes of the final quarter, and trailed by as much as 11 points with two minutes left.
"We’ve been a really good defensive team," said Walker, whose squad leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 47.3 points per game. "I felt like we kinda lost some assignments and we started thinking a little too much, but when we play defense the way we can, we’re a pretty good team."
Of course, it also helps when you’ve got players who can score, and the Raiders’ 74 points were the most they’ve posted in a conference game this season.
In addition to Payton, three other Raiders – sophomore Rayven Peeples, freshman Chanaya Pinto and sophomore Fapou Semebene — each reached double-digit scoring figures. Peeples, who had a 103-degree fever on Tuesday night, converted 7-of-8 field goals for 14 points, most coming in the paint where the Raiders dominated Chipola 44-28.
Up next, NWF State heads to Panama City to take on No. 3 Gulf Coast State at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Commodores (16-1, 3-1) topped NWF State 78-66 earlier this month behind 29 points from Ahlana Smith and took three out of four matchups with the Raiders this past year, including a 67-63 victory in the Region VIII title game.
"Obviously, Gulf Coast is a great team, but we respect all and fear none," Walker said. "We’re gonna get ready, we’re gonna grind it out the next two days and hopefully our kids will be ready to go."